scenes from a mild mid-day panic attack

OK – I started this post last week and never got around to finishing it.  It’s not a particularly difficult post or anything; if nothing else it’s a collection of scattered E3 thoughts that I was trying to write down before my short-term memory said “fuck it, you don’t need this.”

Today, as I attempt to write this, I am feeling very anxious.  It’s the sort of anxiety that I’m recognizing as if it were from a bad dream – I feel like I’ve forgotten something terribly important, and there will be terrible consequences if I can’t remember it.  This feeling could also just be due to me drinking a very large iced coffee and taking a Claritin-D for allergies – so my heart is racing and yet I’m feeling spaced out.  For whatever it’s worth, as far as I can tell, I haven’t actually forgotten anything; today is my wife’s birthday, but that’s already been sorted out – gifts received, dinner reserved, etc.

So I don’t really have any E3 thoughts, as it turns out.  All the big press conferences happened when I was unable to watch them – I mean, I did watch a little bit of the beginning of Microsoft’s presser on Twitter on my iPhone, because I needed to get some Scorpio info – but that was probably about it as far as paying direct attention to the event itself.

Before you ask:  yes of course I’m getting an Xbox One X.  I’ve been saving money in a special savings account ever since it was first announced for that very purpose, and by the time it comes out I might even be able to pick up a 4K TV, too.

I’ve been spending most of my gaming time on the Xbox One lately, as a matter of fact; during their last big sale I ended up buying a bunch of games I already own on the PS4, because I’m an idiot who has started to feel the burn of Achievements again.  Truth be told – and I may have already said this here, but I’m too lazy to go back and check – I really do prefer the user experience of the Xbox far more than the PS4, even if the PS4 is the technically superior machine.  (Will I get a PS4 Pro if I do end up getting a 4K TV?  Probably/eventually, if it gets a price drop, and if I can easily swap in my 2TB hard drive.)

And as it happens, if you were to ask me what it is I’m playing these days, I’d be hard-pressed to give you a quick answer.  I’m kinda playing at least 10 different things all at the same time, some new stuff:

  • Dirt 4: kinda ugly, and has an unusually shitty UI (which is especially odd considering how glorious and pristine previous Dirt UIs have been), but very fun and contains possibly the best rumble technology I’ve ever felt – I mean, you can feel the curved grooves in the road.  It’s extraordinary if only for that specific reason.
  • Lego City Undercover: I bought this hoping my son would play it with me.  He’s sorta interested, sorta not.  As far as the game itself, it’s Lego GTA, and it’s quite charming.  It suffers from the same horrific platforming bullshit that has plagued every Lego game since the dawn of time, and it has a weird tone issue wherein it’s clearly aimed for young kids, but filled with references to movies that no young kid would ever go near.  But whatever.  Sometimes you just want to screw around in a consequence-free environment and break stuff into littler stuff, and this game does a really good job at that.
  • RIME:  Alternates between being a beautiful, serene exploration game and a frustrating, obtuse platformer.  I’d like to see this to the end, but who knows.

as well as a bunch of backlog stuff:

  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: because I got a little jazzed seeing the forthcoming Origins and wanted to remember what those games feel like; this is the first time in a long time that I can remember actually looking forward to a new AC game.  I remain hopeful that the 2-year break served the development well.
  • Fallout 4: because I stumbled across a fantastic video analysis of the game by Joseph Anderson, which does such a remarkable job of articulating everything I hated about FO4 that I kinda want to go back and play it again.  No, that does not make any sense, but does anything make sense these days?

 

I have more to post, I think, but I’m not quite in the navel-gazing mood at the moment and I’d prefer to save that stuff for a different time.  In any event, I’m alive and the Ativan has started to kick in.

(exhales)

What’s Next for Assassin’s Creed?

(Sorry for the brief hiatus; I was inadvertently and unintentionally off the grid last week.)

1. I finished AssCat last week.  I don’t know how many hours I put into it, but I finished with an 84% completion rate; there are a few side missions (Dickens, Darwin, Doyle) yet to do, and I suppose I could go out and hunt down every last collectible though there’s really no point now – I’m level 10 and more or less completely maxed out, and so a slight uptick in weaponry effectiveness as a reward for finding every single chest isn’t going to make that much of a difference at this stage, and I certainly don’t lack for money or crafting materials – nor do I have anything left to craft).  As a whole, I can comfortably say that it would fit somewhere in my top 3 AC games, alongside AssBro and BlackAss; whatever faults it has – and there are plenty – are more than mitigated by Evie Frye, my favorite of all the AC protagonists.  The larger question, though, is this:  even if AssCat is one of the best games in the franchise, what does that even mean anymore?

Let me back up, though, because while I certainly enjoyed my time with the game, I have a rather lengthy list of problems that I have to address.  And at the very top of this list is Evie’s brother Jacob.  As awesome as Evie is – and she’s awesome, and I could easily spend 1000+ words talking about it – Jacob is, unquestionably, the worst protagonist in the franchise, and one of the only playable characters in my entire history of gaming that I’ve ever wanted to repeatedly punch in the face.  I find his entire character arc bewilderingly stupid, and find it impossible to accept that his current form was the result of focus testing and deliberate design choices.  He is a stupid, brutish asshole, and he does stupid, brutish things, and he makes incredibly stupid and brutish mistakes, and I dreaded having to play his missions because I didn’t want to spend any more time with him than I had to.  Sequence 8 in particular is more or less entirely a Jacob sequence, where he does one stupid thing after another and then has the temerity to be outraged that the villain he was knowingly helping ends up turning on him – which is doubly stupid because it’s not like Jacob cares about the sanctity of human life either, given that he is, you know, a fucking Assassin – and the whole sequence was, on a narrative level, so incredibly stupid that I couldn’t even appreciate the mechanics of the sequence’s final assassination (which, in retrospect, is actually kind of neat). Every time I fucked up and Jacob died, or every time the controls didn’t respond to me and Jacob died, a part of me smiled inside, because that stupid asshole had it coming.

Speaking of which – yeah, the controls.  Oy.  Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton says it better than I could; I only wish I’d beaten him to it with the rant that the controls deserve.  I seem to recall that when the very first game was announced, the thing that the developers wanted us to focus on – more than the climbing or the combat – was the quality of the animation.  And there’s no question that the animation is still, for the most part, astonishingly good and believable (even as our heroes do impossible things).  But it’s 2015 now, and this is the, what, eighth iteration of these games?  The simple act of moving forward shouldn’t require the pressing of more than two buttons.  And if the on-screen prompt tells me that pressing certain buttons means I’m going to drop down, then that’s exactly and only what I want to do.  Even though AssCat is mostly good about this, especially when compared to other AC games, “mostly good” shouldn’t be the standard we’re aiming for.

I could go on, but it’s actually been a few days since I last fired up the game, and I’m having a hard time remembering some of the more specific nits I could pick.  I suppose part of the problem is that, unlike other open-world adventure games I could name, I have literally no desire to go back and get 100% in this one.  I’d maxed out Jacob and Evie’s stats and gadgetry long before I’d finished the main story, and at this point doing stupid errands for famous people feels like a waste of time.

So, then, let’s get back to my original question:  even if AssCat ranks as one of the three best games in the franchise, and completely wipes away the bad taste that AssUnit left behind, what does that mean anymore?  There’s going to be a new one of these games next year, and I already don’t care about it.  The gameplay of AssCat is still more or less the same as it was in the original game; there’s only been iteration upon iteration, rather than any sense of evolution.  (Black Flag certainly feels like an aberration at this point, doesn’t it?)  The AC game we’re going to get next November will take place in another unique place and time, but it will also most likely be the exact same thing we’ve already done 8 or 9 times already, and it’s hard to care about it anymore – especially as those things we keep doing are still retaining the original game’s jankiness.  I beg you, Ubisoft – take a year or two off.  Let people miss these games again.  Take however much time you need to fix the controls, and get your narrative shit together.

2.  I’ve been dabbling in Halo 5, for some reason.  I have zero interest in the multiplayer, which means I’m playing the campaign, and holy shit the campaign is so dumb.  I’ve decided that I’m only playing the campaign in online co-op with my buddy Greg, because that’s the only way I can get through it without beating my head against the coffee table.  The mission designs are so antiquated and unoriginal that it’s actually a little hard to believe that this game was intended to come out this year; the end of Mission 2 has you defending your position while your escape ship prepares itself for lift-off, which is only a thing I’ve done several thousand times before.  I pity the poor voice actor who plays Governor Sloan in Mission 3; he has some of the dumbest lines of dialogue this side of a Metal Gear Solid game, and he delivers them with all the gravitas of an over-baked ham sandwich.  Luckily, I’m about to be heavily distracted by this week’s new releases.

3.  And speaking of those new releases… well, look.  I’ve got a lot of things going on all of a sudden; I’m very much re-engaged with this music project that I’d put on the back-burner for the last few months, and free time is at a premium.  To that end, I’m going to be playing Rise of the Tomb Raider first, because that’s definitely more my speed at the moment, and by the time I finish that, hopefully Fallout 4 will have received some of the necessary patches that it apparently needs.  (Also, it should be noted that I’m not even sure where my Pip-Boy edition even is; I haven’t heard anything from Bethesda since October 22.)

3a.  (I also ordered a Steam Link and a Steam Controller a while ago, and those are similarly lost in the FedEx ether.

4.  I was gonna whine a little bit about the Xbox One backwards compatibility list and how none of the games I was hoping to see made it on this initial reveal – no Portal 1/2, no Red Dead (or really anything by Rockstar for that matter), etc.  But it’s OK, really; even if I can play Fallout 3 again, there’s no way I’m actually going to.

5.  I’ve been remiss in talking about books lately.  I’ve been working my way very slowly through “City on Fire“, which I’m not enjoying as much as I’d hoped I would.  It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not really hitting any of my buttons.  In fairness, I didn’t pick it up at all last week, and so whatever momentum I might’ve had has been lost.  But it also should be noted that I’m not particularly filled with any nostalgic yearning for the dirty, grimy NYC of the 70s.  Yes, it would’ve been cool to have seen Television or the Talking Heads at CBGBs, but I was not a punk, and I would’ve been beaten to death had I set foot anywhere east of Broadway.  (Hell, when I was at NYU in the early 90s, anything east of 2nd Avenue was considered dangerous and sketchy; when I lived on East Houston Street after I graduated, Ludlow Street was still somewhat dirty.  Now there’s a fucking Whole Foods two blocks away from my old apartment.)

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.

Wrapping up the Knight, and Looking Ahead to the Fall

1.  I’ve been toying with the idea of reviving my personal WP blog, which I’d impulsively shut down a few years ago for reasons I can’t quite recall anymore.  But I did want to revive two specific lists – my top 50 albums of the 80s and 90s.  I liked writing those lists, and they still feel more or less accurate, and I figured they ought to resurface.  (Speaking of which – please let me know if, for some reason, those links don’t work for you; I’m not 100% sure I’ve figured out how to mass-edit privacy settings.)

2.  Unlike games, which I have no problem giving up on if I’m not enjoying them, I am debating giving up on Joshua Cohen’s “The Book of Numbers“.  It’s a difficult book, but usually that’s not that big a problem; it’s more that I started reading it right before work got crazy, and I put it down, and when I pick it up now I’m totally clueless as to what is going on and, to the extent I remember any of the characters, why I should care about them.  I’d like to get back to it at some point – he’s extraordinarily gifted with words and phrases – but I think I need to read something a little bit less obtuse.

3.  I finished the main Scarecrow-centric Batman Arkham Knight storyline the other night, and yet I’d only completed 64% of the game.  I took a much-needed sick day yesterday and ended up finishing almost everything else – there’s only one or two more militia-themed sidequests to finish, as well as some kidnapped firemen to track down – which brings me up to around 91% completion.  That said, I’ve only found 25% of the Riddler’s question marks, and if I have to find all of them in order to fully activate the Nightfall protocol, I’ll just watch it on YouTube.  Can’t be bothered with that bullshit.

Overall – I think it’s fair to say I liked it, though I did find it tedious and repetitive at times, and almost all the militia-themed quests are straight-up filler and get super-ridiculous towards the end.  (The bomb quests in particular, where you eventually have to fend off 50+ drones, are just flat-out stupid.)

It’s hard to discuss the story without spoiling everything, but I did find it both effective and affecting; if this is indeed Rocksteady’s last Batman game, they went about as all-out as they possibly could, and I commend them for that.  I don’t know that I’ll find myself itching to play it again, though, the way I did with Asylum.

4.  Speaking of what to play next…. I’m looking at the release calendar and it looks pretty goddamned depressing.  Next week is the new EA golf game (which I can’t not call Tiger Woods, just out of habit)… and then:

  • Mad Max (I want to hope this isn’t terrible – there was an interesting-looking preview video a little while ago that suggested it was a bit more ambitious than you’d think – and the fact that it’s telling its own story and isn’t necessarily a naked licensed cash grab seems promising – but I haven’t seen any coverage about it since that video in April, and its September release date isn’t that far away)
  • Metal Gear Solid V (I’m renting this and I fully expect to send it right back.)
  • Forza Motorsport 6 (I missed Forza 5; I’m curious as to whether or not I’m going to like this, given how much I prefer the Forza Horizon games.*)
  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 (wouldn’t it be great if this game didn’t suck?  I miss the old THPS games like crazy.  I have little faith that this won’t be a piece of shit, but little > none, so…)
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I’ll play this for at least a little while, I suppose.  It’s gotta be better than Unity, right?  I just need to figure out its nickname; AssSyn?)
  • Halo 5: Gaurdians (I’m at least renting this because I own an Xbox One and I feel obligated to, but I haven’t enjoyed a Halo game since maybe Halo 2.)
  • Fallout 4 (I cancelled my PipBoy preorder, mostly because I couldn’t figure out which system to get it for – has anyone confirmed whether the PS4 is getting mod support the way that the XB1 is?)
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider (This and FO4 are the only two games I could see knocking Witcher 3 out of the top spot in my GOTY ranking.  For some reason – perhaps simply my desire to play a good, fun action/platformer – I think I’m going to like this one more than Fallout 4.)
  • Star Wars Battlefront (I’m not really a multiplayer shooter kind of dude, but I loved the original games, and I’d like to think this would be fun enough for a little while)
  • Just Cause 3 (sure, why not)

And then there’s a bunch of remastered editions which I may/may not check out purely out of graphics-whore-ishness, like Uncharted, Gears of War and God of War.


* I forgot to mention that I tried the PS+ edition of Driveclub the other day; I did about a lap and a half of the first race and couldn’t figure out whether it was meant to be arcade-y or a sim, and while it’s pretty it didn’t grab me, and I promptly uninstalled it to make room for future HD installs.  Much ado about nothing, I guess.