the first few hours: Assassin’s Creed 4

My hopes for Assassin’s Creed 4 were virtually non-existent, to be frank.  It wasn’t just a matter of low expectations; it was simply that, after falling in love with Brotherhood and then being so incredibly disappointed by both Revelations and last year’s straight-up broken AC3, I didn’t want to have to care anymore.  I certainly didn’t expect very much out of yet another annual sequel, especially if it was rushed for a new console launch.

But the positive reviews of AC4 got me too curious to sit back; and when I’m curious, I get frisky; and when I’m frisky, I end up spending money before I have a chance to think about what I’m doing.

And so I bought the PC version.  The deluxe edition.

And after around 3 hours or so, I think I’m in love again.

Furthermore, now that I’ve had this joyous introduction with 4, I think I can better explain what went wrong in Rev and 3.  I mean, I’d finished the first three games pretty thoroughly and probably sunk at least 100 hours of playtime over the course of that trilogy, and so I considered myself a pretty hard-core AC fan; but man, Rev and AC3 immediately rubbed me the wrong way, and I never thought I’d go back after feeling so personally affronted.

Basically, the problems with Revolutions were two-fold.  First, there was far too much tutorializing in the early going.  Again, remember that I’d already played the first 3 games and knew them inside and out – I didn’t need to be interrupted every 30 seconds to tell me how to jump or climb or unsheathe a sword.  And it didn’t help that the controls – in Revolutions, at least – didn’t feel right.

But on top of that, there were all these brand-new systems on top of the old ones; I’d just barely finish learning one new thing and the game would already be teaching me 3 new systems, and it became almost impossible to keep track of anything – not just the moves themselves, but the story and the characters and why the hell I was even doing what I was doing.  There was no opportunity to establish any kind of flow.  (I’ll come back to this point in a second.)

Furthermore, the animation, while still beautiful and graceful, was so heavily prioritized over everything else that I’d miss jumps that I shouldn’t have, or I’d still be leaping instead of swinging a sword.  By the time the tower defense stuff started happening in earnest, I’d all but given up.  I didn’t care anymore; I was doing these things not out of story necessity, but because the developers thought that what made Brotherhood so good was the addition of all these new features, and so they felt obligated to throw the entire kitchen sink and the pantry and the dining room table into the mix for Revelations.

The problems with AC3 are a little less complex; basically, that game was just straight-up unfinished.  I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered so many game-breaking bugs in a major console release; I got stuck in geometry more times than I can count.  To its credit, it did at least get out of its own way and let you do a bit more exploring without constantly interrupting you, and so ironically it suffered the opposite problem from Revelations – it introduced a ton of new features but didn’t explain any of them.  None of the trading or hunting stuff made any sense to me, but it also seemed clear that I’d need to get good at those elements in order to stand a fighting chance towards the end of the game; I gave up on it before I allowed myself to get that frustrated.

So the clearest difference between those two games and this new one, then, is how AC4 just kinda starts and gives you an entire island to figure things out on your own, where you can explore at your own pace, and simply learn through doing and seeing how things work in context.  Sure, there’ll be a button prompt here or there, but for the most part the game stays out of your way.

That first island is brilliant, too, because it’s really well designed; there’s tons of hidden things to find and discover, and since that’s the way I like to play, I had an absolute blast with it.  Reminded me a fair amount of Far Cry 3, actually – and I mean that in a good way, because I really enjoyed most of FC3.

As I said before, I’m playing it on my PC, and it looks absolutely beautiful.  So beautiful, in fact, that it’s the first game I’ve played on my PC where I’ve had to really turn things down and/or off in order to get a stable/playable frame rate.  And even then, on the lower settings, it still looks great – maybe not as great as I’d like in order to take screenshots, but it’s definitely nothing shabby.  (Side note – the “modern” sections of the game tend to lock up on me, though, even on those lower settings.)  Frankly, it really makes me want to either get a new graphics card or… um… get a new console.

Anyway – I’m now in Havana, having synchronized almost all the viewpoints there, and I’ve done a fair bit of exploring and random side stuff (found some buried treasure, snatched a few sea shanties and Abstergo fragments, rescued a few pirates, etc.) and now I’m on my 3rd or 4th mission.  Very much looking forward to seeing what happens next.

>Weekend Recap: the holiday that wasn’t

>If all had gone according to plan, this post wouldn’t exist.  The plan was to leave Thursday morning to go up to my dad’s house for Thanksgiving, and to eventually return to the apartment on Saturday night, and Sunday would be a day of holiday decorating and football.  Instead, my wife had the flu and I had a nagging head cold, and we stayed home.  And so I played a lot of video games. 

In list form, in descending order of time played:

  • finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
  • got a few hours into Gran Turismo 5
  • kept dabbling in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
  • went and bought Burnout Paradise on the PC thanks to yet another ridiculous Steam sale and got back into it very, very quickly
  • Train Conductor 1/2 on the iPhone is insanely addictive
  • played 2 games of NBA JAM HD with my brother, for old time’s sake
  • and some Pinball FX2 with the wife.

I will give AssBro a more thorough examination later, once I’ve had a bit more coffee.  But I can say, now, that I think it’s the best game in the franchise, and it will most likely wind up at #3 in my Top 10 of 2010. 

As for GT5; I’ll be the first person to admit that what I know about cars could be inscribed on the rim of a shot glass with a dull Sharpie.  But I really love driving games, strangely enough, and while I tend to prefer crazy, insanely fast stuff like Burnout, I have been known to get sucked into a Forza game for hours and hours.  (I do have an aversion to NASCAR, though, which is probably similar to my aversion to country music and the tea party movement.)  I needed to see what GT5 was all about for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t played a game on my PS3 since I finished FF13;
  2. The last time I played a GT game was on my friend’s PS1;
  3. I am a graphics whore (which reminds me, at some point I need to talk about this fascinating article, which I got from the lovely and talented Caro), and if there’s one thing that the GT franchise is famous for, it’s graphics; 
  4. I loved the hell out of Forza 3, and felt obligated to see if GT5 was better; and
  5. After 5 years of development and endless delays, the curiosity was killing me.

After 2 hours of playtime, here’s what I can say about GT5.

  1. It’s prettier than Forza 3, generally.  I’ve read lots of people who have been complaining about how horrible some of the cars look; to my eyes, it looks great.  It’s worth finishing a race in last place just so that you can watch the pretty, pretty replays, which are utterly convincing and gorgeous.  Some people complain that it’s bland; I’ve only been on a few tracks, and driven a handful of cars, so I can’t quite speak to that.  One could maybe argue that it’s a little sterile, or perhaps a little too pristine.  
  2. Is it as fun as Forza 3, though?  Not sure.  It’s certainly more accessible than I was expecting it to be, but that’s relative – when you’re buying a new (or used) car, the game doesn’t tell you what the car’s Top Speed is.  When you’re like me and know nothing of horsepower and weight and acceleration, not giving out a car’s Top Speed is basically a slap in the dick, and I ended up losing a ton of races because I had unwittingly bought the wrong car.
  3. Further to that last point, the game doesn’t really dole out new cars and rewards the way Forza does.  I’m still only in the beginner tier of races in the career and at least half of the events I’m looking at require vehicles that I don’t have, and I’ll have to retry events I’ve already won just to earn enough coin to afford an applicable vehicle – a vehicle that I’ll probably only drive once or twice until I get something better.  Seems odd.
  4. I haven’t raced online, but the fact that the game’s single-player campaign was so horribly fucked up because too many people were crushing the game’s servers is absolutely unforgivable, especially for a game of this magnitude.  And if the game’s developer is telling you to pull your PS3 offline so that you can play single-player without running into problems, that’s just absurd.  PlayStation fanboys love talking shit about Xbox Live and how you have to pay for it when PSN is free, but file this under “You Get What You Pay For” as Exhibit 375. 

I remain intrigued, though, and there’s so much content that it’s sure to get me through the winter.  Although I may pull out Forza 3 again, just to compare/contrast.  My gut reaction right now, though, is that Forza feels more generous and accessible; GT5 feels more authoritative and legitimate. 

I was really looking forward to NBA JAM HD, and when my brother came over we finally got to try it out.  My brother had a Sega Genesis as a kid and we played NBA JAM endlessly.  The new game basically feels like the old game, which is great.  The problem is that it’s really meant to be played with someone sitting next to you on the couch, and my brother lives in DC (and doesn’t own an Xbox).  So, while it’s tremendous fun in the right conditions, it seems pointless on its own.  I felt a little sad sending it back to Gamefly, but it is what it is.

AssBro final thoughts will go up either later today or tomorrow.

>Weekend Recap: Assassin Down the Avenue

>”I am an American aquarium drinker /
I assassin down the avenue.”
 – Wilco, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

According to Raptr, I’ve spent 15 hours with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and another 5 hours in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  Both games are excellent and well worth your time.

Ah, but you want details!  You want experiences!   You want in-depth impressions!  (Do you?  I don’t know who reads this thing anymore besides Russian search engines that keep bringing up my best guess at the Beatles set list in Rock Band.)  (That sentence right there, the one you just read, will have already generated 20 more hits before I even finish writing this post, so let’s move on.)  (*Sigh*  Remember Rock Band?  I still really like RB3 but haven’t touched it in weeks.)

Let’s start with Need For Speed, then, since I got pulled out of AC:B and into a lot of NFS multiplayer this weekend with a lot of the same crew that used to play Burnout 3 every night for hours. 

Yes, it feels a lot like a Burnout game.  (Which is great.)  But you know what?  It also feels a lot like the old Sega classic Outrun, in that there’s a shit-ton of drifting that you do, and all the cars seem to be superglued to the road, and they all have fat asses that always feel like you’re about to spin out of control in a drift, but you never do.

The star of the show is clearly cops v. racers, and pretty much everyone that I’ve played with acknowledges that while both sides are fun as hell, it’s playing as the cops that’s really fun as hell.  That’s as close as you get to the classic Burnout style of craziness, but now with spike strips, roadblocks and EMPs.  There’s not a tremendous amount of depth to the gameplay, but that’s OK – every race is different, and each track has a lot of side routes (as not all of the shortcuts are actually shortcuts) and, well, shit gets real crazy quick.   (Or, alternately, shit gets crazy real quick.  This game moves too fast for comma placement.)

The Autolog is also a pretty neat feature – it’s essentially a real-time Facebook wall with all your friends’ activity, so if someone beats your time in a race, you can very easily try to retake your position on the leaderboard.  It’s very easy to get sucked down that particular rabbit hole.  At all times, you are aware of what your friends are doing (and have done) in relation to what you’re doing, and before long another hour has gone by while you try to beat your friend’s time.  I haven’t played a game with this much “just one more go” in a while.

Although, now that I think about it, there’s a lot of that “just one more x” in Assassin’s Creed, which is partly why I racked up 15 hours without even really meaning to play that much.  And I’m not even a third of the way through the actual story. (!)  If the first Assassin’s Creed was (fairly) criticized for not having enough to actually do, AC:B is possibly guilty of having too much.  My last 2 hours of gameplay yesterday was basically me trying to level up the 4 members of my brotherhood, which scratched my Farmville itch like crazy.  Is this a spoiler?  I don’t think this is a spoiler – it’s a feature, that’s partly spelled out in the game’s title.  A few memories into the game, you start recruiting fellow Assassins.  And you level them up by sending them out on all these little missions – you don’t actually see them do this, and it doesn’t affect you in any way, other than that your assassins will be unavailable for the 5-10 minutes it takes them to do their missions.  And so, while they’ve been doing that, I’ve been finding hidden flags and hidden feathers and doing all sorts of sidequests, and once they are sufficiently leveled up – or, more accurately, once I’m bored of flag finding – I’m probably going to start burning down all the remaining Borgia Towers that I currently have access to.  And then, maybe, I’ll get back to the actual story.

The AC:B graphics engine isn’t as bad as, say, the Gametrailers video review made it out to be.  I mean, my Best Games of 2010 – Best Horses award will still be going to Red Dead Redemption, but there’s a lot about AC:B that’s simply staggering.  The city of Rome is absolutely gigantic, and while it maybe lacks the variety that was a high point of AC2, it also feels a lot more cohesive.  (That being said, the engine is a bit old – and the more I think about it, the more I’m curious to see what an AC game would look like in the Red Dead engine.  Both games feature huge open worlds with wide open spaces – Red Dead doesn’t have lots of buildings, of course, but its terrain is a lot more varied and textured.)

Anyway.  You get the idea.

My rental copies of Donkey Kong Country Returns and Gran Turismo 5 will most likely arrive while I’m away for Thanksgiving; I don’t know that I have any time in my life for either of these games, let alone Disney Epic Mickey next week.  I’d very much like to be able to finish AC:B by the end of the year, and considering how massive the game is and how much there is to do, I wonder if that’s possible, considering how busy I’m about to be…

>AC: Brotherhood – a more apt comparison

>This was obviously meant to go in the last piece, but I might as well bring it up now – if we’re going to compare AC:B to anything, why not Inception?  As long as you ignore the distinction between “dream” and “meta-history”, you’re more or less in the same conceptual ballgame, with layers upon layers of reality stacked on top of each other.  I think there’s even a flat-out “dream-within-a-dream” reference in Desmond’s first extended sequence.

More to come on this, obviously, if it ends up being something worth pursuing.

>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.