Weekend Recap: Dismantling the Patriarchy and Playing With Expensive Toys

Well, it took a little while, but I’ve finally caught the cold that’s been running around my house for the last week, and I’m very fortunate that I’m out of sick time and vacation time at my day job and also that my day job is now suddenly extremely busy with very time-sensitive stuff and the acceptable margin for error is even more nil than usual.  The timing couldn’t be better.


So I’ve been reading Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which is an absolutely gorgeously-written book about some rather unfortunate subject matter, given the recent news developments about how all men are trash.  I don’t mean to be flippant about that, by the way – men are fucking trash, and if there’s one good thing about the disastrous Trump presidency it’s that the patriarchy might finally come crumbling down, and good fucking riddance to it.

I don’t think my own actions have been as horrific as, say, Louis C.K., but that doesn’t necessarily get me off the hook; I was a shithead in my 20s, and I didn’t know that I was a shithead at the time, and it sucks.  Facebook has that little “memories” thing and it was almost exactly 3 years ago today that I went back and re-read my college diary and was simply aghast at how shitty a person I was, and the whole thing still makes me nauseous.  All I can do, now, is raise my son to be a better man than I used to be.  I’d like to think that I’m at least a halfway decent man now, and that’s really only because of a concerted and conscious effort and my eternally patient wife straight-up telling me when I’m unconsciously mansplaining or being a jerk.


As noted above, I’ve been kept away from writing here for a while.  I’ve been wanting to pop in here and write about, oh, I don’t know, my new Xbox One X and how my son and I have been playing Super Mario Odyssey together, which is really all I’ve ever wanted to do with him.  Let’s start with that, then, because it’s wonderful.

Henry loves Super Mario Odyssey.  We’ve been playing it in 2-player mode, where he’s Mario and I’m the hat, although he’ll hand me his controller when he needs help getting to a tricky place or when there’s a boss fight.  And more often than not he’s just happy to watch and show me where to go, and when we collect a moon he goes “YES!” and gives me a high-five, and it’s like, man, this is the best.  I’ve said it here a million times – I never had a Nintendo system in my house; I had an Atari 2600 when I was a little kid, and then my younger brother had a Sega Genesis, and so I’ve never had the Nintendo nostalgia that everyone else in the world has.  But seeing my kid go nuts over Mario is awesome.  I’m so happy to be able to share this experience with him.   (In fact, when I was getting him dressed this morning, he told me he had Mario dreams, and he couldn’t wait to play some more with me tonight.  Plans = made.)

As for the Xbox One X:  well, look.

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I don’t (yet) have a 4K TV, but I can tell you that the difference between the OG XB1 and this new XOX is night and day.  It’s much quieter, everything loads much faster (even the stuff that hasn’t received “enhanced patches” perform better – The Witcher 3 loads at least a full minute quicker than before, and it seems to perform much smoother too), and the stuff that has received updates is even more pronounced.  Wolfenstein 2 on XOX, in particular, makes the OG XB1 look last-gen.

I’ve been spending the most time with Assassin’s Creed Origins (heretofore AssOrgy), and yeah, that game looks really nice.  I’m still in the early going – I’m only level 15 or so, and I’ve just gotten to the Hippodrome – but it has a wonderful sense of pace to it.  Feels a lot like Witcher 3, actually, in all the right ways, and this game’s open-world structure seems to suit the nomadic player character quite well, in that it makes sense for him to be wandering around and picking up missions here and there, helping out where he can.  I’ve seen some chatter on Twitter that while people like AssOrgy, it’s not necessarily a great Assassin’s Creed game; I suppose that’s a fair assessment, given that the “assassination missions” feel a lot less scripted than they used to, but overall I really like the direction this game is moving in.  In fact, the only bits that I’m finding myself missing are the environmental puzzles, though supposedly that element starts to show up a bit later, once you reach Giza and the Pyramids.

I understand that there’s a fair bit of confusion as to who the Xbox One X is actually for.  I can tell you this:  it’s for me, the Xbox fanboy who has been disappointed by the performance of the Xbox One and wants a comparable experience to the PS4.  And who also has a little bit of extra cash (or doesn’t care about excess credit card debt).  Is it necessary?  No, probably not, but I don’t regret my purchase in the slightest.  It makes my existing library look and perform drastically better than it did, and so I’m all for it.  If you’re looking to take the plunge and upgrade, I would highly recommend buying an external hard drive and backing up your current Xbox One and moving all your games over to it first, as it makes setting up the X1X a twenty-minute breeze.  (For whatever it’s worth, this is the one I have, and I bought it because Major Nelson uses it too, and it was on sale at the time.)

The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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.

further thoughts on Assassin’s Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the less said about AC3, the better.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I’ll probably be flipping a coin.

Watch Dogs: the empty promise

If I’m feeling particularly cynical this morning – here, on the cusp of E3 2014 – it’s because I’m tired of feeling like a sucker.

Remember the deafening, jaw-dropping roar of hype that accompanied the reveal of Watch Dogs when it was first announced at E3 2012?   Of course you do; it’s all we talked about for the last 2 years, and it’s why Watch Dogs became Ubisoft’s highest-selling new IP of all time when it finally came out.

But what was it, exactly, that we were all excited about?

Is it possible that the trailer was just an amazingly slick, kick-ass bit of promo that made vague promises about what open-world games might look and play like on the new, not-yet-released PS4 and Xbox One?

Look:  I finished Watch Dogs over the weekend.  I did a fair amount of side stuff in addition to the campaign; there’s still plenty left to do if I wanted to 100% it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what that stuff will look like.  I’ve seen more or less everything that game has to offer.  I don’t know how many hours I spend with it – the “statistics” tab is comically bereft of useful information – but I definitely did my time.

And when all is said and done, and for all the game’s actual strengths – of which there are a few – Watch Dogs is, ultimately, one of the most poorly written AAA titles I’ve ever played in my life.  However many millions that Ubisoft spent on graphics and animation and gameplay systems are irrelevant in the face of a stupid story filled with stupid characters who say stupid, stupid things.

It’s not just that Aiden Pearce is grotesquely unlikable; it’s OK for a game’s lead character to be an anti-hero.  The problem is that Ubisoft clearly thought that Aiden was someone worth rooting for, someone worth getting emotionally invested in, someone whose fashion sense was “iconic”.   They misjudged him so spectacularly that it’s almost hilarious.

Aiden is an asshole to everyone; his enemies, his friends, his family. He consistently thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room – and each mission begins with an unskippable interior monologue that is meant to establish why Aiden is about to do whatever it is he’s about to do, and that whatever it is, he is in absolute control of the situation.  And yet he gets outsmarted at every turn, and gets gobsmacked by plot twists we can see coming from miles away.  (i.e., Clara.)

The script itself makes no sense, and can oftentimes feel as if it was written by many different people in many different rooms, none of whom were able to see the parts of the script they didn’t write.  Here are some examples which, obviously, contain SPOILERS, so just know that there are MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:

When Aiden first meets T-Bone (also:  there is a character by the nickname of T-Bone; his given name is Raymond Kenney; the nickname is not explained), they engage in a drinking game.  The clearly aggravated bartender says it’ll be $100 up front, as a “damage deposit.”  T-Bone looks at Aiden, as if to say, hey man, you’re paying.  Aiden then literally says “I’m not a cash kind of guy.”  Let’s leave aside, for the moment, that Aiden is in somewhat of a desperate situation by this point and really, really needs to talk to this guy, and is not in the sort of position to be such a fucking dick about $100.  Let’s instead notice that by the hours of game-time I’d played at this point, when Aiden finally said that line, I’d stolen over $300,000 in cash by hacking into random people’s bank accounts.  This is not me being a dick, by the way – the game continually interrupts you to point out people with hackable ATM accounts.  Point being:  Aiden clearly had the money.  Indeed, I’d just hacked some rich people and walked away from an ATM right outside the bar with an extra TEN GRAND in my pocket, figuring, I’m going into a bar, why not make sure I can buy a round.  Why the fuck wouldn’t he just pay the $100, considering what was at stake at the time?  Does it just make him look tough?

After Aiden finally rescues his sister, and she’s able to process the ordeal she’s just been through, she slowly realizes that he is “the vigilante” that she’s heard about on the news.  One: she heard news reports while being kidnapped?  She barely got a chance to talk to Aiden on the phone.  Ok, but then Two: even if you turn off the in-car radio, which you should probably do anyway since the soundtrack is pretty shitty, you will be interrupted by news reports.  The news reports that continually interrupt you IDENTIFY AIDEN BY NAME EVERY 10 MINUTES.

There is also the issue of Bedbug and Iraq.  Well, there’s really a larger racism issue with the whole Black Viceroys gang, in that you can tell the people who wrote this sequence must’ve marathoned all 5 seasons of The Wire in a very short amount of time in an attempt to make sure that this hi-tech pack of black gangsters speak “realistically”.  Bedbug, a cousin of Iraq (who is the top man of the gang) is not technically seen getting thrown out of a top-story window, but it’s certainly implied that he did, and his sudden reappearance (only via cell phone voiceover) literally makes no sense whatsoever.

Iraq, on the other hand… I don’t know where to begin with him, so for now I’ll just concentrate on his boss fight appearance at the end of Act 4, which was a bunch of fucking bullshit.  You chase him and emerge in this small enclosed rooftop space.  There are no obvious exits or entrances except for one door behind you, which is locked.  He talks all this bullshit at you and then sends in soldiers to fight his fight for him.  The soldiers, by the way, materialize out of thin air.  As does Iraq himself and his heavily-armored friend – I know this because I was trying to plant IEDs for their reappearance, and I actually watched them spawn out of nowhere.  Iraq also is a bit of a bullet sponge, and while I understand that bosses need to be challenging, Iraq is not a super-human bullet-proof monster; he is an unarmored human being, and when I shoot him in the face from 5 feet away, I expect him to die.  And because he is somewhat bulletproof, and because I died several times during this encounter, I had to listen to these goddamned extended monologues OVER AND OVER AND OVER again, and they never once sounded menacing or threatening or anything that was probably intended.

Oh, one more thing.  There are two instances where Aiden gets hacked; once by some douchebag hacker/DJ named Defalt (whose look is so clearly modeled after Deadmau5 that one wonders if Deadmau5 might have a claim to copyright infringement), and once by the main baddie, Damien.  The hacking is so complete that it actually affects the game’s camera, which glitches out and can cause minor problems (especially when driving, because the driving system still sucks, even after 12 hours or whatever).  At this point I was convinced that the whole game was taking place in the Assassin’s Creed Animus, because otherwise there is LITERALLY NO REASON WHY A THIRD-PERSON GAME’S CAMERA SHOULD BE GLITCHING OUT.

[END SPOILERS]

I said last week that Watch Dogs is the modern-day Assassin’s Creed that I’ve been wondering if I’d ever see, and there are levels and layers to that comparison that go far deeper than any superficial story elements.

The first AC game’s primary flaw was that there simply wasn’t enough to do; you had these beautiful open worlds but no real way of interacting with them.  The ensuing AC games made sure that you had more than enough to do; indeed, you’d run into a side activity every 20 seconds.

Clearly Ubisoft didn’t want to make that same mistake twice, and so Watch Dogs contains more side missions than actual story content.  I said this before; the game is so desperate to make sure you have something to do at all times that it can almost get confusing; multiple side missions will open up nearly at the same time, meaning that you have to press multiple buttons on the D-Pad to set up a waypoint.  At one point I was doing a side mission requiring me to eavesdrop on a conversation that would lead me to a briefcase that I’d need to scan.  While I was eavesdropping, another side mission popped up on my screen, asking me to press down on the d-pad to set a waypoint.  But then the eavesdropping part of the mission stopped, and the briefcase waypoint flashed on the screen, but only for a second; I missed which button I needed to press; and when I checked the map, I didn’t know what icon I was looking for.  I didn’t fail the mission, but I lost the opportunity to complete it, and so I assume that conversation will respawn somewhere else, later.

As much as the game drove me crazy – and I’m feeling angry just writing this down – there’s still a neat idea here.  The idea of using surveillance and stealth to carry out missions is still interesting, and to the game’s immense credit it’s actually executed quite well.  The gunplay is competent enough, too, so that when you run out of remote-controlled booby traps you can go in guns blazing and take care of business easily enough.  Or at least, if you die, the checkpoint system is fairly generous (IN MOST – BUT NOT ALL – CASES) and you can re-approach your task without having to do the whole thing over.  (That said, if you do re-spawn mid-mission, all the bad guys you took out come back, which can actually make things harder.)

But my god, this game made me angry.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Smarter people than me will tackle the game’s myriad issues with respect to its treatment of women and minorities, and I will link the hell out of those essays when they go up.  In the meantime, I need to switch off.

I’m not sure what I’m doing for E3.  I’ll do my best to livetweet reactions, although that’s wholly dependent on what I can get away with at my day job.  In any event – if you’re there, have a great time, and if you’re watching from afar like me, have… also, a great time?

Weekend Recap: Dogs and Wolves

I’m maybe 8 hours into Watch Dogs, even though I only finished Act 1 (of 5) last night.

The reason why I’m 8 hours into the game but am barely 20% into the story is because the game is constantly interrupting me with other things to do besides the main story, and since playing the main story means having to listen to shitty dialogue made worse by shittier voice acting, I’m more than content to indulge those side missions.  I check into hotspots; I hack the shit out of ATM accounts (even though I’m not spending any of the money); I hack into buildings and spy on weird people; I unlock ctOS towers (WD’s version of the radio towers in Far Cry 3 and/or synchronizing viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed).  Anything that involves not having Aiden Pierce speak (whether to a person or simply as part of an internal monologue) is something I’m more than happy to indulge in.

Actually, say what you will about the narrative and the characters and the numerous plot holes and nonsensical premise and the rest of it – and I’ll get to all of that – but Watch Dogs is, for all intents and purposes, the modern-day Assassin’s Creed that I wondered if we’d ever see.  My wife watched me play it for a few minutes and thought it was Grand Theft Auto – and certainly you can make that case.  But the DNA between Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed is so similar, in fact, that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see that this future-Chicago is, in fact, part of the Animus.  Even the digital glitches seem familiar.  (This Eurogamer article all but confirms that the two franchises take place in the same universe, even if the bottom quote of that article calls these references mere “Easter eggs”.)

I can’t seem to talk about Watch Dogs without getting totally scatterbrained, so I’m going to do the rest of this in bullet-points:

  • Comparisons to GTA being unavoidable, I’d have loved it if Watch Dogs had stolen GTA’s driving model, if nothing else.  It is fucking impossible to keep a car moving at any speed on the road without spinning out, hitting a dozen cars, or killing civilians who are all too eager to get in the way.  (Perhaps those civilians feel guilty in that their complacency in letting a private corporation like the one that makes ctOS completely take over Chicago.)
  • To that last point – the reason why the NSA’s surveillance tactics are as thorough and as voluminous as they are is because they are (or were) collected IN SECRET.  There is only a certain amount of disbelief I can willingly suspend, and the idea that a private corporation could do what the one in Watch Dogs has done is completely in-fucking-sane.  In a major, heavily liberal city like Chicago, no less!  Certainly there’d have been some angry op-eds in the local papers, at the very least, because I’m not sure that the general populace would be content letting a group of anonymous hackers be their voice, either.
  • The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pierce, is one of the more difficult protagonists in modern games to empathize with.  And this particular problem with empathy is totally different than what you might expect with the three men of GTA V, who you at least understand right from the get go are monsters.  Aiden is (at least I think) meant to be someone you root for, someone you understand, someone who can guide you through this city and show you how messed up it is.Alas, Aiden is poorly introduced.  The opening cutscenes establish that he’s some sort of hacker, in the middle of the digital robbery of an upscale building.  Something goes wrong and he bails, and then, some time later, he is shot at by gangsters while driving his car, resulting in the death of his niece.  Now, the way this opening sequence is laid out, one gathers that we are meant to feel bad for Aiden, and that this scene helps us understand his rage and his quest for revenge.  They killed a child, after all!  But: he’s also a criminal, right?  Even if he’s only robbing the rich (and who even knows if that’s the case), he’s engaged in illegal activity as a full-time profession, and he got caught, and the bad(der) guys tried to take him out.

    And he’s not charming or witty or even likable, as with, say, the Ocean’s 11 crew.  He’s poorly acted, as he’s basically been a one-note grumble so far, and it doesn’t help that his dialogue is so stupid.

  • Also:  he’s continually recognized by passers-by as “the vigilante in the news”, which makes literally no sense as his face and body are digitally obscured by all the cameras you hack – plus, at least as of yet, he’s done nothing newsworthy to grant him that title.  And while I appreciate all this extra stuff to do, I don’t understand why he’s so interested in doing it when he’s written as being single-minded of purpose.  Why should he care about random crimes?  Why should he care about random people, for that matter?  For all intents and purposes he is a broken man out to right a grievous wrong – why the fuck is the game interrupting me literally every 30 seconds with gang hideouts to break up and criminal convoys to derail?

As I haven’t seen nearly enough of the game’s story to comment on it in any detail, I won’t.  But I will absolutely pass along Cameron Kunzelman’s pretty definitive look at some of the game’s larger issues.  That article alone is enough to keep me stalling, let alone all the other ridiculousness detailed above.

And it’s a shame, too, because there actually is some interesting stuff here.  Underneath all the narrative stupidity and the horrendous, horrendous driving (and the average third-person shooting), the game offers unique ways of handling enemies that have nothing to do with guns.  One of my favorite moments thus far was how I was able to unlock a ctOS station – different than unlocking one of the radio towers – purely through hacking cameras.  I found a hidden vantage point, hacked a surveillance camera, found the guard with the access codes and hacked him, then found another guard wearing a hidden camera, distracted him with a ringing cell phone which put him in the same room as the [cable box?], hacked that; mission accomplished.  I could have just as easily gone in, guns blazing, mowing all the guards down and doing everything directly.  But this was a far more satisfying way of dealing with the situation, and I didn’t have to kill anybody.  Didn’t even have to sneak around!  I just stood out of anyone’s line of sight and my phone did the rest.

This is how the game generally encourages you to play, for whatever it’s worth.  And it’s a really interesting concept, and for the most part it’s satisfying to pull off.  But it’s not foolproof, and it’s not always successful, and you can’t take too much direct fire before getting killed, and the checkpoint system is somewhat inconsistent; a mid-mission death can either mean replaying 5 minutes, or 20.

I’m going to keep playing it, because there’s more than enough to do to keep me busy for the rest of the summer, but I’m not sure how much I’m going to enjoy it.


On the other hand, I can’t say enough positive things about Wolfenstein: The New Order.  Indeed, I very well might put Watch Dogs back on the shelf if it gets too infuriating just so that I can go back to Wolfy and find all the collectibles I missed the first time around.

Unfortunately, it’s now been almost a week since I finished it, and so the words aren’t coming as quickly as I’d like them to.  I did write a whole bunch while I was in the middle of it; I’d really only add that it’s remarkable and refreshing to see a single-player-only FPS so lovingly crafted and cared for in this day and age.  With every ensuing Call of Duty I find myself getting more and more cynical, wondering if the FPS genre has passed me by; even the more interesting shooters, like Far Cry 3, still have moments of tedium (as well as troubling, tone-deaf overtones of tribalism and racism).

Wolfenstein is, at heart, an old-school shooter, and it’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel here.  What it gets right, though, is so tough to do these days; it has astonishingly good pacing, objectives that are clear and understandable, a supporting cast of characters that are as three-dimensional as you could hope for (given their relative lack of screen time), and a diverse and satisfying arsenal and thousands of Nazis to kill.  There are a few tough spikes in difficulty, and towards the very end (maybe the last 30 minutes of the game) I turned the difficulty down just because the hour was getting late and I wanted to see at least the first 20 minutes of Watch Dogs before going to sleep, and because I’m a grown-ass man and I don’t have to feel bad about that sort of thing.  Even with the difficulty lowered, the game was still fun; I don’t feel like I diminished my experience at all.

I’m not sure what the rest of the year’s release calendar is looking like – E3 is just around the corner, but I also expect a lot of games to get delayed until next year – but I’d be very surprised if Wolfenstein wasn’t in the running for my Game of the Year.  Highly recommended.

on collectibles

Collecting stuff always comes across as filler at best, psychological manipulation at worst. Most games do a poor job of justifying collecting other than giving you a reason to pick stuff up. I’m OK with the collecting being about further exploring the world, but even most games don’t seem to pull that off. I know that someone people really like that base level of completion, though, and it’s just not my thing.

(from Patrick Klepek’s tumblr, answering a question regarding the selling of Steam cards, which is something that has now netted me $5.68 since yesterday’s post)

[Note: I’m not trying to turn this blog into a Patrick Klepek appreciation/stalking site; it’s just that a lot of the stuff he says/writes resonates with me.]

Let me throw out two questions to you.  I’ll answer them (because that’s what I do), but I’m curious to get your feedback as well.

  1. Do collectibles matter to you?  Have they changed the way you play?  Do you prefer games with hidden collectibles, or do you avoid them?
  2. Are there any games that have successfully made their collectibles relevant and worth pursuing beyond simply getting a trophy or an achievement?

1.  I used to be obsessed with finding the hidden areas in games like Quake 2 and Duke Nukem 3D.  I’d turn on God Mode and just wander around, looking for hidden nooks and crannies.  The loot was usually nice, but that wasn’t even necessarily the pull; it was simply the idea that in these intricately designed worlds, there was always a reason to venture off the beaten path.

When Achievements became a thing, I couldn’t help but notice that games started putting hidden stuff back into their games with greater frequency.  It became a sort of status symbol of how hard-core you were in a given game; yes, I found all 500 Orbs in Crackdown; yes, I killed every pigeon in GTA IV, and here’s the proof.

Maybe that’s a bad example; I never found every pigeon in GTA IV, or even came anywhere close.  Some games were better at hiding their collectibles than others, and Rockstar’s worlds in particular were so huge, and so dense, that hunting down those specific things would’ve taken hundreds of hours that I simply didn’t have (unless I used some sort of map, which would – to me – defeat the purpose of the hunt).

Other games are less about obscure hiding places and more about simply overwhelming you with sheer numbers.  The Assassin’s Creed franchise comes to mind, as do the two most recent Batman Arkham games; both of these games feature so many goddamned things to find that the hunt stops being enjoyable and simply feels like busywork; a lazy way of implementing “added value”.  When you finish the game and see that you’ve only completed 70% of what the game has to offer – and this is after you’ve already sunk 20-40 hours – it can feel downright discouraging.

I don’t feel the pull towards these things the way I used to, though it also depends on the game.  I couldn’t be bothered to look through every viewfinder in Bioshock Infinite, but I was kinda pissed off that I missed a few of the voice recordings – especially since I apparently missed some pretty major plot points as a result.  And I’d thought I’d been pretty thorough, too!  

2.  When I started this post, I figured that by the time I got around to answering this second question I’d already have a list of games that offered worthwhile collectibles, but it turns out that I’m coming up somewhat empty.

I seem to recall that while some of the hidden objects in Psychonauts got a bit ridiculous in number, the “mental vaults” were quite important – one in particular (in the disco level) added a level of backstory to the disco teacher lady that was absolutely jaw-dropping; I made it a point to find every single one after seeing that.

The hidden skulls in the Halo games offered a great deal in the way of replay value… although I was never the world’s biggest Halo fan, and I only ever found those (when I was inclined to hunt for them) by looking at YouTube videos.

I’m reminded of Valve’s games, suddenly, even if their games were never particularly prone to hidden collectibles.  But scouring the environments always yielded interesting rewards in terms of story (i.e. the hidden rooms in the first Portal, the hand-written messages in the Left 4 Dead games).

If you can come up with better ones, by all means, let’s hear ’em!

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.

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