>AC: Brotherhood – the first hour

>Of all the big franchises out there that I’m proud to be a fan of, Assassin’s Creed is the one that I have the strangest relationship with.  There’s only 3 games in the series, but the pattern has already evolved thus:

  • I get phobic and downright hostile towards preview coverage, 
  • I start dreading the game’s release, thinking it’s going to be terrible;
  • The game comes out and gets rave reviews;
  • I buy it immediately and end up being totally in love with it.  

This happened with AC2 – watch me go from skeptical (1)…to puppy love (2)…to serious man-crush (3)…to full-on infatuation (4).  It’s true that AC2 ended up only being my 3rd favorite game of 2009,  but look – 2009 turned out to be an amazing year, and I was torn between AC2 and Batman:AA as my 2/3 for weeks

AC:Brotherhood took the phobia and hostility to new, unprecedented levels, however.  First of all, I was not ready for a sequel this quickly – sequels that occur with this kind of pace rarely end up being great.  (AC2 came out almost exactly a year ago, which itself came out almost exactly a year after the first one.)  And, of course, the marketing for this game was totally screwed up – the initial coverage made it sound like it was multiplayer-only, which was definitely not what I wanted out of an AC game, and then when it was revealed that there was a single-player campaign also, I figured it was an obligatory tack-on, and then when it was revealed that it was still set in Italy, with Ezio, I was thinking that this was going to be some shitty quasi-expansion pack cash-in, and planned to avoid it at all costs.

And then the reviews started coming in, saying it was clearly the best in the franchise.  And so my rental copy finally arrived last night, and I started playing, and now I’m totally hooked, again.

The most recent Giant Bombcast has an interesting bit of discussion regarding AC:B (starting at 1:05:22), with one point being that when you break down what it is you’re actually doing in AC:B, it sounds an awful lot like Fable 3.  Consider:

  • You are attempting to overthrow an evil, corrupt government
  • You buy property and shops, which help beautify each area and which contribute to your own personal wealth
  • There is an impending cataclysmic disaster that you must prepare for

And there are other comparisons to Fable 3 that are worth mentioning:

  • It’s a sequel that appeared rather quickly
  • The combat is better than in the previous game, but still a little janky
  • The graphics engine is a little old – still capable of great stuff, but, still, old

That’s the last we’ll talk about Fable 3, though.  The first hour of AC:B has totally quashed any and all desire I might have had to slog through a 2nd playthrough of Fable 3, and in any event, the bullet points I listed above are simply conceptual similarities – otherwise, you would never confuse one for the other.

I feel silly even talking about AC:B at this stage in my initial playthrough; I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s there, and I already know too much about what is to come.  I suspect that most of the rest of this blog’s entries for the remainder of this year will be related to AC:B, and I can already tell that this game will make me rethink my top 10 of 2010.

The Best Games of 2009

If I’m being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point – Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here’s my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:

  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.

I “finished” 19 of those games. That doesn’t mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game’s main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:

  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush

And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it’s based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I’m about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It’s true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook’s own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don’t even like real farming, or even going outside. There’s no enemies in Farmville; there’s no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there’s nothing to do until everything’s finished growing. And yet I’ve logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I’ve even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there’s no new seeds for me to unlock. I have “beaten” Farmville, and yet I’m only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I’m not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 – I’d hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand… I don’t even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn’t even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I’d accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I’d made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it’s a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS’s best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While I can’t remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment – it really felt like GTA, even with the DS’s hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I’d expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I’ve ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN’T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I’ve ever seen, and I’m terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can’t hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it’s more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4’s artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn’t win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I’m such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I’ve been seeing this pop up on a few “Worst Games of 2009” lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can’t compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means “a lot.” The game’s mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game’s levels are truly wonders to behold – I’m thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it’s more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game’s multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The “No Russian” level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game’s constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I’ve played exactly twice. There’s no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it’s hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can’t really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I’m going to give it to whichever Achievement it was – presumably in Assassin’s Creed 2 – that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I’m including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn’t really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4’s 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3‘s DLC and Borderlands, and it’s clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don’t know, small; it didn’t take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it’s definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2‘s single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. But that’s the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 “10 MINUTES OR LESS” ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:

  • Halo 3:ODST. I’m officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don’t care anymore. I’ll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn’t really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn’t necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place – I’m a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn’t, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.

THE “I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES” LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.

  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon’s Souls. Maybe this shouldn’t be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I’d have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that’s only because I was impatient and didn’t really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn’t get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn’t necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn’t good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven’t had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King’s Story. I’m not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first “world”/”area”/”section”, drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one – I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I’m not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I’ve been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.

THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN’T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON’T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I’ve given Silent Hill about an hour or so – the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I’d want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I’m hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn’t qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I’ve ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3’s motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 – mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it’s really well done it’s positively narcotizing. I haven’t yet finished Torchlight, but it’s not like there’s a story – I’ve left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also – I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn’t mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It’s definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I’m of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information – all of it presented with tender loving care. I’m not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it – indeed, it’s the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I’m on my 2nd playthrough – I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I’m going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would’ve been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn’t, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2’s immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it’s at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn’t mean it’s any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It’s a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you’re Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It’s a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year’s sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I’d never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I’d never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game’s got charm. It’s got charisma, and it’s got personality. And it’s also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he’s completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that’s not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

>Assassin’s Creed 2: postscript

>**MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD**

My previous AC2 post was cut short, but in retrospect that’s probably a good thing. I was still at least a good 5-6 hours away from finishing it, and yet my original intention with that post was to try and guess where/when/what the sequel was going to be. Now that I’ve finished it (as well as being finished with it), I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea – and that’s also a good thing.

First things first, though – the game itself. At the end of the day, there’s really only 2 things that really bothered me about the experience – the freerunning controls tend to get screwed up at the worst possible times, and the final boss is one of those bosses that refuses to die, no matter how many times you kill him. I hate that. It’s absolutely my #1 pet peeve in game design. And in this particular case, it’s not like the guy is a wizard, or has particularly strong armor, or superpowers – he is, in fact, a fat fuck. And the fact that the game forced me to whittle this asshole’s health down to zero 5 times and he still didn’t die… GAAAAHHHHHHH.

That aside, AC2 is a lock for my #3 position for Game of the Year, which is remarkable considering that as recently as a month ago I wasn’t even sure I was looking forward to playing it. Everything in it is refined and polished, from the combat to the graphics to the storytelling. I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by the end result of the glyph hunt (especially since I was hoping to assemble the pieces myself), and I ended up getting the super-badass armor a bit earlier than I was expecting – I almost thought I’d done something wrong – but it’s a remarkable experience through and through, and if the improvements from AC1 to AC2 are any indication of Ubisoft’s dedication to getting it right, then AC3 is going to blow us all away.

And speaking of AC3, let me get back to my opening paragraph. A lot of people were pissed off about AC1’s ending, which was less of a cliffhanger and more of a dull thud. (I kinda liked it, actually, since it was abstract and vague, but I understand the criticisms.) AC2’s ending could technically be called a cliffhanger, since nothing is resolved, but it’s a bit more satisfying in that you still feel like you accomplished something, even if it’s mind-bogglingly enigmatic. It doesn’t feel like a setup for the final part of a trilogy – it feels wide open, like they could go anywhere.

I could see AC3 taking place all over the place, actually. My knowledge of history certainly has quite a few holes, but considering that the game ends in the very late 1600s, and the codex map that you eventually unlock in AC2 is ultimately a map of the world, with certain locations marked on each continent, it’s entirely possible that you could go all over the globe. I think the most logical place to go would be the colonial US in the 1770s – lots of political intrigue, Freemasons, and different cities to visit. Plus, one gets the feeling that the events of the near-future are taking place in the US, so since Desmond is already on the run, you could see him following the literal footsteps of his ancestor. But I could also see the game taking place in WW2 Europe, too. The glyphs talked a lot about Rasputin, too, so I could foresee some time in Russia. And if the game requires some globetrotting, there’s lots of Mayan ruins to run around in. Considering how strange AC2’s ending is, I could even see Atlantis showing up.

Anyway: Bravo, Ubisoft.

>Assassin’s Creed 2: The Medium Is the Message

>I apologize in advance for the repetition – all I can think about today is Assassin’s Creed 2. Minor spoilers ahead.

Current Status:
I’m… let’s say, 12 hours in. I’m a few missions into Venice – my most recent story-related Achievement indicated that I am in the middle of DNA Sequence 7, and so if the Achievements are a reliable measure of game progress I am just around halfway through the story.

I Was Wrong:
I wasn’t really all that negative, but the the thing that bothered me the most in Friday’s initial impressions was the disconcerting nature of how utterly meta the game is. Which is to say, the game never stops reminding you that you’re playing a game, which seems fundamentally at odds with the level of detail that went into designing these Italian Renaissance-era cities.

And yet, now that I’m fully invested in it, this design makes absolute perfect sense. As you probably know by now, you are not actually playing as Ezio, your long-dead Assassin ancestor; you are actually playing as present-day Desmond, and you are looking through Ezio’s memories through the Animus, a sort-of computer-controlled Matrix-esque brain scrambler machine. You have a HUD; you have a map; you have shimmery graphical cues and clues as to points and persons of interest; and you have all these things because you, as Desmond, need to search through Ezio’s life to discover the answers to a mystery/conspiracy that is still ongoing.

I didn’t really figure this out until Desmond finally got to take a break from the Animus. In the first game, Desmond got out of the Animus after almost every significant mission; in this sequel, I’ve only seen him at the very beginning and at this particular junction, upon arriving in Venice, which was after around 10 hours of playtime. In the first game, Desmond was put into the Animus because the evil organization that kidnapped him was trying to figure something out; in this sequel, it seems that Desmond’s primary goal is to absorb Ezio’s assassination skills (via osmosis, transference, etc.) so that he can be a fully-trained Assassin in addition to figuring out whatever it is that Ezio was up to.

And so, during this little break, Desmond is taken from the Animus room to a warehouse area and is asked to turn on the security system, which happens to have power switches right up near the roof. Desmond needs to jump and climb and leap just like Ezio in order to do so, which are skills that he didn’t necessarily have before – if the Animus is to be believed, Assassins would absolutely murder the Ninja Warrior obstacle course.

And it was during this particular break in the action, while I was taking in how the same graphics engine that was powering these remarkably detailed Italian cities was also taking in this quasi-futuristic warehouse, that I suddenly noticed that there was no HUD, no map, no on-screen indicators of any kind. And right after I noticed that I was no longer “playing a game,” Desmond suddenly fell into a hallucination which: (1) also didn’t have any on-screen indicators, because (2) Desmond wasn’t actually plugged into anything at the time.

This is all a long, not-terribly-interesting way of saying that the meta-game construction that so confused me at first is not confusing me any more. It’s a contrivance, sure, but it’s absolutely justified and makes the game’s larger fiction that much more effective.

Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine:
And while we’re speaking of gameplay mechanics that disturb the reality of the Italian 17th century experience, let us also talk about the glyphs. This is maybe my favorite part of the sequel, and it gets me absolutely giddy when I think about the next game. It’s really just another collection mini-game, but there’s a lot more to it than that:

I forget exactly how it plays out, but the basic idea is that there was a previous person in Desmond’s position – Subject 16 – who was a casualty of the evil corporation’s Animus experiments. Subject 16 managed to smuggle out, at great cost, a certain “truth” that has been chopped up into 20 different sections.

The first layer of this mini-game is that as Ezio explores each city, he may happen upon a famous landmark; a picture will pop up with some relevant historical information, along with a little red eye notation which indicates that there’s a hidden glyph in the area. At which point, if you’re so inclined, you’ll scamper onto the rooftops and switch on your Eagle Vision, looking for anything that seems out of place. And then you’ll see it: a line of Hebrew, a bar code, an Egyptian hieroglyph. You’ll press Y, again, to scan it.

Once you’ve scanned it, you’re taken out of Italy and into Subject 16’s program. He’ll warble something enigmatic, and then you’re given a series of increasingly odd puzzles involving assorted historical figures. The first few are easy enough, as in: what do 5 of these 10 classical paintings have in common? (Answer: the prominent character is holding an apple.) But I’m now into my 10th (or so) glyph sequence and instead of find-the-missing-thing, I’m getting into these decoder-ring puzzles that involve base3 number systems, and these align-the-circular-disc puzzles governed by a maddening, impenetrable logic; and these puzzles are presented alongside photos of the Moon landing, correspondence (fictional(?)) between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, footage of nuclear bomb tests as well as the electrocution of an elephant… it gets very bizarre and spans across all eras of recorded history, implying that the powers that be have always been seeking these “Pieces of Eden”, which is also what the Templars/Assassins have been seeking in the game itself.

And so once you’ve solved a short series of these puzzles, you then unlock about one second’s worth of film footage. I’ve collected roughly 10 of these snippets thus far, and it appears to me that they’re out of sequence; they are CG and appear to be a nearly-naked man and woman (Adam/Eve?) either being chased or running towards something.

I’m at a loss to explain what any of this stuff means; it’s just that it’s so friggin’ cool.

Less Is More, Except When More is More:
In my earlier write-up I said that I felt overwhelmed with things to do, which was in direct opposition to how I felt about the first game, where there wasn’t enough. I no longer feel that way. There’s certain side missions that I’ll admit I don’t really care about; the races are fine, except when the auto-parkour controls get a bit wonky, at which point they get endlessly frustrating; this is also true of the courier missions. The assassination missions simply give you more opportunities to formally assassinate people, instead of just killing random patrol guards or important historical figures. I haven’t felt the need to pursue these just yet; at this particular point I’m not really hurting for cash, which appears to the the main tangible benefit for completing them. I am, however, looting as much treasure as I can. I’m also finding the Codex pages – those are easy enough to do, and aside from the cash/health benefits for finding them there’s yet another meta-level puzzle that goes along with finding all of them.

The best side-mission to go for, though, is the Assassin’s Tombs. These are 20-minute long, self-contained areas which feel just like levels out of Prince of Persia, and they are show-stoppers. And unlike the rest of the side-missions (including the glyphs and the codex…es), you know right off the bat what the reward is – it’s a bad-ass suit of armor that (I think) belonged to Altair, the hero of the first game.

______________

I have to cut this short, unfortunately. But I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’m done with it.

>50K!

>That didn’t take very long at all, actually. I hit 50K late last night in Assassin’s Creed 2, after finishing a particularly flashy bit of killing.

AC2, by the way, is amazing. My initial concerns were probably just me trying to keep my expectations in check; I’m now at least 5-6 hours in and I’m totally in love all over again. In fact, I think the only reason why I’m awake so early on a Sunday (especially since I was playing until around 1:30 in the morning) is because I’m so anxious to jump back in.

My only real complaint is that sometimes the controls get fucked up. For the most part, the game tries to keep thing as simple as possible and so it’ll more or less guess what you’re trying to do and just let you do it without a series of convoluted button presses, but sometimes it guesses wrong and sends you careening backwards off a ledge instead of up the side of a wall.

OK – Venice, here I come!

>Assassin’s Creed 2: the first few hours

>If memory serves, and my blog posts (from almost exactly 2 years ago!) are accurate (1), (2), I enjoyed the first 70% of the first Assassin’s Creed.

Gabe at Penny Arcade made a pretty insightful newspost about this the other day; I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says that his impressions of most of the negative reviews implied that the reviewer didn’t really take his/her time, and just kinda sped through the game in order to see everything and make their deadline; if you actually take your time and play the game at its own speed, it’s infinitely more rewarding…

…I kinda rushed through the last section of Creed, and suddenly all the 7.0 – 7.5 review scores made sense. You really do need to play Creed at a slow, thoughtful, deliberate pace – it helps you “get into character”, so to speak, because when you’re in that mode the game absolutely shines.

In my defense, I was rushing through the end of AC1 because I was desperate to start Mass Effect, but that’s neither here nor there. The truth is that for everything it did right, AC1 was fundamentally flawed. Setting up assassinations became tedious because you were just doing the same things over and over again, and in doing so the incredibly detailed game world suddenly became very artificial. More to the point, it started to feel like a game, with a set of clearly defined rules and guidelines, which ruined the illusion of being an assassin who was free to do whatever he chose. And if you started to get impatient with the game’s incredibly slow and methodical pacing and decided to run around and just try to get it over with, everything just fell apart. Animations and crowd dialogue were endlessly repeated; the much-touted “crowd physics” just felt clumsy; the combat became a nuisance. And then the story just… ended; it was intended to be a cliffhanger but felt more like a sudden crash into a brick wall.

According to the reviews I’ve read, the team at Ubisoft heard all this and decided to fix everything that was wrong. And judging from the reviews, they’ve been largely successful. I can’t necessarily speak to that just yet, though.

One of the main complaints is that for all its open-world-ness, there was not very much to actually do in the first game. To counter that, there is almost too much to do, now – I’m only 2-3 hours in and I’ve unlocked a ton of side missions that are almost entirely optional. It’s a little overwhelming, actually, because I’m generally compelled to do as much as I can in a game like this and I feel like I don’t know where to start; and so I’ve mostly just been sticking to the main story missions.

The thing about Assassin’s Creed is that it very much has a very specific feel to it, and that can take a bit of getting used to. The trailers make it seem like it’s this fast-paced free-running action-packed adventure, but if you actually play it like that you get your ass kicked. You have to be slow and stealthy; you have to pick your battles carefully. It certainly took me a little while to adjust to it, but once I got it, I got it.

The game also has this weird meta-level to it that can be a little disorienting – this was true in the first game and it’s doubly true in this one. The game features an incredibly detailed recreation of 16th century Italy, from the architecture right down to the shoes on the feet of the crowds. And yet for all of this, the game is constantly reminding you that you – the player – are from the future, and everything you’re seeing is really just a memory of someone long dead; there’s lots of weird futuristic visual glitches and every once in a while you’ll get a voiceover from someone in that futuristic room with you.

Not only that, but the game’s first real tutorial takes place at least an hour into the game, where you learn how to blend with crowds, how to pickpocket, and how to really do combat. And everything you do is just so plainly artificial and unnatural – the crowd blending in particular is just weird. (It reminds me a little bit, both in concept and in execution, of the motorcycle gang-riding thing in GTA4’s Lost and Damned storyline.) Add to this the random side missions, which include races and courier missions and finding hidden feathers and other non-sequitors – basically, it feels very much like you’re playing a game, instead of living and breathing as this character.

Also, Nolan North is the voice of your futuristic self, and as much as I like that guy and his performances, he’s becoming a bit overused. He is the Prince of Persia; he is Nathan Drake; he is the dude in Shadow Complex; he is everywhere; he is everyone.

And for a game called Assassin’s Creed, you actually kill a lot of people, not just the one dude you’re aiming for. It’s a weird sort of disconnect, similar to Condemned, where you’re hunting down this one serial killer and in the process you yourself end up killing hundreds of people.

It really sounds like I’m shitting all over it, right? And yet I’m really, really into it this time around, just as I was at the outset of the last game. The story is engaging, in spite (or because) of being convoluted and maddeningly vague; and when you’re actually doing it – when you’ve spotted your mark and you’ve figured out your entrance strategy and you’re moving in for the kill, slowly, methodically, silently – it’s breathtaking.