FrameSkip Game Reviews

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Re: FrameSkip Game Reviews

Postby b-guy » Thu Jan 24, 2013 11:47 pm

Assassin’s Creed Series

Seems to be my time to get caught up on old games, huh? I never bothered with the AC games when they were coming out, largely because I knew they were more stealth-related and I know from playing a couple of RPGs like The Elder Scrolls that I suck at and hate playing stealth characters. But Steam had the first two AC games on sale, plus they were produced in Canada, so I tried them out.

I’ve played all of the games except for 3 up to now, but it took a long time. Mostly because I lost interest halfway through the second game and didn’t touch it for a year. I’ll make some general comments on the series, and then run through the games. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum, sticking mostly to stuff that would either be on the box or else readily evident in the first few minutes of the game. For anything else, I promise a warning.

General

So, some background. One of the neat things about this series is that you’ve got (at least) two different storylines going. The present-day story is a science-fiction type deal where it’s possible to access the memories of your ancestors using a machine called the Animus. So throughout the games you play as a modern-day guy named Desmond who’s stuffed into this machine. Through the machine, he’s playing through the lives of some of his Assassin ancestors. As he relives their memories, he becomes increasingly ‘synchronized’ with them, allowing him greater access to their memories. If his actions don’t match with what they did, such as being injured, dying or killing people who shouldn't be killed, then he becomes increasingly ‘desynchronized’. If this happens too much, he gets kicked back to the last full sync point. So it’s like you’re playing a game where you play a character who’s playing a game. Confused yet? Yeah. So the bulk of the story actually takes place in the not-so-recent past.

As I mentioned above, the game puts a lot of emphasis on stealth. You have a ‘social status’ indicator that tells you when you’re attracting too much attention to yourself, and if you get yourself in big-time doo-doo (like after you kill somebody) you've got to escape guards and pursuers by breaking their line of sight to you and finding a good place to hide. Again, I usually don’t like this kind of stuff, but the system they use in this game actually makes it fun…it’s not like TES where you've got to creep around dark caves or dungeons. AC lets you hide in plain sight by blending with crowds, ducking around corners, grabbing a seat between people on a bench…stuff like that. The system evolves as the games progress, but the basics stay the same. The second game and later give you more detail on which guards are suspicious of you, and to what extent. You also gain the ability in the second game to blend in with almost any group of people, and there is skill involved in sticking with them, where the first game allows only specific spots, and it’s walk over, push button, done.

The games are also largely open-world, to the point where you can go anywhere your ancestor remembered going during that time period. There is a lot of space to explore, most of it city-space. In each game you have a main story-line that you can progress through at your own pace (mostly) along with numerous side-quests that vary from scaling towers in order to gather information about the surrounding area to collecting various flags (which I thought was stupid). In later games you can also invest in improving city shops and services, take control of city districts from the enemy and even build up your own team of Assassin recruits. Ubisoft definitely tweaked a lot of stuff as the games progressed.

Assassin’s Creed

Ahh, the first game. In the main storyline, you are Desmond Miles, a young guy born into the Assassins…except he ran away, tried to live a normal life and wound up getting kidnapped by a big, evil company. As you start the game, he’s been stuffed into the Animus by these evil corporate types so they can get access to something one of his ancestors back in the Crusades knows or did. So through him you’re reliving the life of Altair, a Syrian Assassin in the Holy Lands fighting against the Templars. Altair has just screwed up royally, and in order to redeem himself he has to kill nine bad-guys in nearby cities.

Your options in this game are fairly simple; You have a hidden blade, a sword, throwing knives and fists. The game does a fairly good job of guiding you though your first kill and introducing the information-gathering types of missions you need to do first before sending you off to hunt him down in Damascus. This is where the biggest weakness of the game pops up: repetition. You only need to complete two information-gathering quests before you are allowed to assassinate your target, but there are six total…and each one gives you more information about the best way to take the guy out without getting killed. And it’s always the same…pickpocket, eavesdrop, beat somebody up, escort somebody somewhere. Ditto for some of the side missions…and the number of times you heard the EXACT same line from somebody being harassed by the guards was just stupid. And the same three beggers are ALWAYS harassing you for money with the exact same dialogue lines. It’s a major piss-off. There are some minor issues with the camera control and angles as well, and the user interface is clunky (You have to click through a ridiculous number of screens to exit the damned game!)

That said, the first game is still a good way to start the series. Gameplay is a lot simpler, the storyline is very relevant and it helps you get used to the style of the games. I also really liked the character of Altair…sort of the quiet type that prefers to do things himself before somebody else can screw it up for him. (Dunno why I’d identify with that…)

Anyway, the storyline progresses as you kill off your nine targets. The ending is interesting, but the biggest twist pops up with Desmond’s ending in the present. Let’s just say that Desmond is the 17th person to be subjected to the Animus, and things didn’t go well for the first 16.


Assassin’s Creed 2

The second game was a pretty big change from the first one. This time, Desmond is living the live of Ezio Auditore, an Italian back in Renaissance Italy.

Minor spoilers: Desmond is rescued from the bad guys by a team of modern-day Assassins. Except, surprise, they’ve got an Animus of their own and they also want to poke around in his head. Oh, and by the way Des, the more you use the Animus the more likely it is you’re your ancestor's abilities, memories and even personalities are going to bleed into your mind. (Think Jaroch, Traks fans!) Hope you don’t go too crazy, buddy, but we really, really need this info, so get back in the machine!

Graphics-wise, the game improved on the original by a fair bit. Italy is far more colourful than the Holy Lands in the first game, and the people around you are less repetitive. You also now have a database you can access that tells you about the historic buildings and people you’re encountering, which I liked. I believe you should learn something while you're slaughtering bad-guys. The UI is fixed, the camera issues are gone and the missions are a LOT less repetitive. There are still a lot of similar tasks, but more surprises when you try carrying them out. Stuff actually happens during your information-gathering missions that you don’t expect.

Your combat options are also expanded considerably. You have new equipments such as a poison blade and smoke bombs, and you can now assassinate targets while hanging off ledges or hiding in certain spots. You also get a base of operations, the Auditore ancestral villa, which you can upgrade in order to earn better weapons and such. You also have secondary missions that are more relevant to the story, such as collecting the pages of Altair’s old Codex. (to unlock new Assassin gear) or collecting the keys to a hidden vault where Altair’s old armour is stored. As you do naughty things, wanted posters start going up and town criers start warning the public about you, so you’ve got to tear down posters and bribe people in order to keep your profile low. The issue with the secondary missions is that while they are relevant to the story, they really don’t advance it. I think this is why I stopped playing this game the first time around…I was so distracted by all the little stuff that I wasn’t advancing the main storyline, and it just got boring. This was really a shame, because the main storyline involves some interesting historic personalities. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how any of this stuff is relevant to the present day story…at least until the end of the game.

I also took some other issue with the story for this game. Unlike the first game, where Altair is an experience (if initially arrogant) Assassin, you first see Ezio when he’s about 16. And, frankly, I didn’t like him. He came off as a spoiled little hoodlum. Bad things happen, he decides he wants revenge and, oh convenient, it turns out his family is involved with the Assassins, giving him the perfect avenue to get it. Ho-hum. The game does jump years ahead as the story progresses and Desmond works through Ezio’s memories…but even by the time I lost interest in the game I didn’t like the character. That said, when I picked it up again a year later and actually started hammering away at the main storyline again I did find that he grew up, became less of a twit and started to grow on me a bit by the end of the game.

Speaking of characters, one of my big beefs with this series is that Desmond’s story is barely covered, compared to Altair or Ezio. One bit that this game does add to that story is a little more on Subject 16, the guy that used the Animus before Desmond. Turns out he knows more about what the bad guys want than Desmond does, and he’s hidden clues throughout the Animus’s software. Desmond can access these clues by finding special glyphs hidden on historic buildings.

The game had a decent ending that FINALLY explains what’s going on. All I’m going to say on that.


AC: Brotherhood

Although released as a separate game, this could have been an expansion to AC2. It’s big enough to stand on its own, don’t get me wrong. But the changes between 1 and 2 were far more drastic than with this one. Improvements in the technology, yes. But you’re still Desmond reliving Ezio’s memories. Most of the game takes place in Rome, and most of the tweaks and improvements you’re able to find in AC2 make repeat appearances here. One thing that’s changed from AC2 is that you can re-live completed memories whenever you like, as well as leaving the Animus at will again (you could in 1, but not 2). That was good. A bad change was the new idea of ‘partial synchronization’. So if you have to kill Target X and you do so, great. You get 50% sync. But if you kill him a certain way, like without being detected, or while dangling from a rooftop by your toes singing‘Bad Romance’ while remaining undetected by the guards, well then you get 100%. I thought this was frustrating as heck, especially since having a higher sync doesn't seem to add anything to the story. The soundtrack was great, though. It’s pretty good in all the games, actually, but in this one it really seemed to stand out.

The overall story, both for Desmond and Ezio, is an extension of AC2. Ezio got his hands on something important in the second game, now the bad guys want it back. So you end up going into Rome, the center of their power, and doing your best to degrade their forces. From reducing their financial assets to sowing discord and screwing up their army, you are the worm in their apple. Not as clear-cut a story line as the previous games, but there’s so much to do in this game that it’s actually fun to just rampage through the memory sequences and secondary memories.

The other major changes in this game were: The ability to upgrade shops throughout the city, like you could in your home base in AC2. Then there’s the addition of enemy-controlled towers throughout the city. If you kill a bad-guy captain and blow up his tower, then you have control over that district. So what? So…the more towers you control, the more Assassin Recruits you can recruit for your personal little army! I loved this! You recruit somebody, send them off on mission so they get experience and such…and if you need them, you can call them in to help you out. Trying to take out a guard but having trouble getting close enough? A wave of your hand and here comes a hooded helper and BAM! Great fun. Now granted, if all your guys are out of town on missions then there’s nobody to help you. So you keep one or two around. This really made it feel like you were actually part of an Order, with people supporting you, and not just one guy off on his own. Oh, there were also some great side missions, like sabotaging war-machines designed by Leonardo de Vinci before the enemy can use them. Maybe it’s the army guy in me, but missions involving wooden tanks, hang-gliders and attempts at machine guns were lots of fun! Another interesting tidbit is a number of old memory sequences that Desmond can access that flash back to the AC2 timeframe. Specifically, to a girl that Ezio was…er…involved with right at the beginning of that game. These flashbacks show what happens between her and Ezio over the course of AC2, which as I said takes place over a number of years. I don’t think it’s any big spoiler to say that it was very sad.

One big beef I had with this game was the ending, at least Ezio’s ending. Again, trying not to give spoilers. But towards the end you gain control of an artifact. One that’s supposed to be so powerful that people are killing each other like crazy to get it. And once you have it, it’s the only weapon you can use. BUT IT SUCKS! As soon as that sequence started, I wanted to throw the damned thing in the gutter and go for the swords, smoke bombs and hidden blades! But the game won’t let you. On top of that, even once that bit ends, you have zero warning when you start the final sequence of the game. So you suddenly get into this mix of narrative and game play that gives you no access to your recruits, no access to buy new weapons or supplies, you can no longer finish any side-stories you had going on…everything but the main story-line is just cut off.

Desmond’s ending, on the other hand, had me glued to the screen. Again, avoiding spoilers, but I had to jump into the next game IMMEDIATELY to find out what happens next. Luckily, it was on sale on Steam the same time Brotherhood was. Got them both for 17 bucks.

Final note. This is my favorite game of the series so far. The combat, stealth and assassination aspects have been well-tested and tweaked by this point. The addition of the recruits was fantastic, I liked the story and the whole idea of taking the city from enemy rule a piece at a time and rebuilding it. I also finally started getting attached to the Ezio character. He’s really grown up in this one, and he’s playing a leadership role instead of being an annoying kid with a vendetta. Speaking of…

Spoiler warning here: At the beginning of the game, Desmond and his team need a new hideout. His teammates, and this really did catch me off-guard, actually decided to setup shop in the old vault beneath the Auditore villa. So you just finish playing through AC2 as Ezio, with this place as your base of operations…and now you’re coming in as Desmond, hundreds of years later. The place has deteriorated badly, there’s modern cables and signs everywhere, and Desmond is seeing ghosts from Ezio’s past due to the bleeding effect of the Animus. And that’s when it really hit me that even though I've been playing as Ezio in these games…in the game world, he’s been dead and gone for centuries. He's beyond worm food at this point. Nothing you do will have any effect on what happens to him. Right when I was starting to like the guy, too. The soundtrack for this area of the game is fairly sad as well, and you can only wander around at night, when the place is deserted. It’s just a contrast…but it made me very sad.


AC Revelations

As I said, I jumped into this game right after finishing ACB due to the cliff-hanger story. I was a bit disappointed though, because it was another case of ‘In order to find out what happens to Desmond, you have to work though a shitload of Ezio memories’. GROOAAAN! Really? At this point, I’m far more interested in Desmond’s story than his ancestors! The game does give you a bit more on his past, but it’s a side quest, and really doesn't tell you much that you didn't already know.

Gameplay is largely unchanged. The game takes place in Constantinople after it’s fallen to the Turks. The only real change I noticed from ACB was the addition of this ‘hookblade’ thing that makes climbing easier and allows you to zip-line down conveniently placed zip-line ropes. There are some other minor changes, but nothing major. Assassin recruits, enemy towers, upgradable shops and all the usual fare from the previous two games returns. Honestly, the hookblade just feels like the developers jumping up and saying ‘See? See? It’s not all the same! We changed stuff!’. Ditto for the mini-game, where the bad-guy tries to take their tower back after you kill their captain. Yawn. Luckily you can avoid that happening, very easily.

The game does live up to its title though. There is a main story-line involving Constantinople and a pair of feuding princes. This gives Ezio a chance to establish himself in the city, gives you a reason to renovate shops, kill bad guys and gain recruits. But really, it’s pointless. The real story-line, and the reason Ezio is in the city, is because he’s looking for five keys that will unlock Altair’s secret library in the old Assassin fortress. (yup, Altair is back.) And while his missing key story dovetails with the feuding princes thing, I really didn't care about that story-line. That said, you do visit some pretty neat locals. And what you do gain from the Ezio and Altair storylines, along with Desmond’s tie-in at the end really does dump a lot of information on you. So 'Revelations' is a fitting title.

On the subject of story-lines, if I had to pick one word to describe this game overall, it would be ‘sad’. First off, it takes place some time after Brotherhood. (At least from Ezio’s point of view. From Desmond’s, it is immediately after.) Ezio is now an older man, or at least late-middle-aged, looking for some answers from his own ancestors. The game actually starts in Masyaf, the same fortress that served as Altair’s base of operations in the first game. Of course, hundreds of years later, it’s empty and abandoned. On top of that, the five keys he has to find in order to access Altair’s library allow you to play through brief segments of Altair’s memories. Most of these take place after the first game and serve to fill you in on Altair’s story from the end of the first game right until the day he dies. So you have old Ezio, an empty fortress, a foreign city far from Ezio's home of Italy, and old Altair. Toss in an unexpected minor character death or two and you've got a fairly depressing game. When you consider that you've now looked at memories from Ezio over his entire life, you've seen his regrets, failures and after watching the way he develops…well. I found I’d developed a surprising amount of empathy for the guy, considering he’s a fictional character that I initially disliked.

Overall, this game was good, but not to the same level as ACB. One major improvement was the ending sequence. In this case, the final build-up to the Feuding Princes story was a LOT of fun, and involved a crazy carriage race with a twist. It was fun. Way better than the one at the beginning of the game. Fun, fun-fun. And with that bother out of the way, you could get to the real ending: the keys.

BIG Spoiler Warning: Despite being really depressing, this game gave an excellent send-off to Ezio and Altair, neither of whom appear in the third game. At the end of the game, after Ezio finds the five keys and opens Altair’s library, he finds Altair’s skeleton along with a final key that allows Desmond to re-live Altairs final memories. The way this was done, between the camera moves and the dialogue…it really was a good way to say goodbye. Having completed Ezio’s memories, Desmond is finally able to retrieve the information he needs. You’re also left with the hope that maybe now, with all this behind him, Ezio can have his happy ending. For two of the three main characters you've seen in these games, you have closure, one way or another. I’ll admit, I choked up a bit. (OK, maybe more than a bit.)

There really isn’t much of a Desmond ending in this game, unlike the previous three. Well, there sort of is. The memories he unlocks from Ezio and Altair expand on the endings of AC2 and ACB, and set the stage for an end-game of sorts in the third game. But there’s no ‘Holy F**k’ moment, and no real cliffhanger.


Assassin’s Creed 3

Haven’t played it. Haven’t even really watched the trailer. All I know is that it takes place during the American Revolution and involves a Native (or half-Native) Assassin named Conner. And Desmond, good old bucket-o-memories, is still in play. I do want to play this one, but considering that the deluxe edition with the DLC is still $80, I think I’ll wait. A few more months and Steam will have it on for half that. I’m not keen on the American Revolution thing. No offense to you Americans, but compared to the Crusades, the Renaissance and some of the other historical events that have happened over the past five thousand years, I could think of a lot more interesting events to visit. (Plus, I can’t see Colonial America having as many interesting buildings to climb as Venice or Constantinople.) But hey, I was wrong to dismiss the series initially, so I’m probably wrong about AC3.


Last Thoughts

I went back and started playing the original game the other day…I don’t want to spend the money on AC3 until it goes on sale, after all. It still holds up fairly well, despite being six years old. The repetitive missions and really, really annoying repetitive dialogue from the generic beggar/citizen/whatever NPCs suck, but the gameplay is so much simpler than later games that I really don’t think I would have liked the later ones as much without this introduction.

The story-within-a-story idea, the sci-fi concept and the dives into historical times really combine to create a unique and fascinating series of games. And the character development, especially of Ezio, ends up being a big part of what I like about the series. I really wish we could spend more time advancing the present-day storyline, but from what I understand the third game addresses that.

Definitely proud that a series like this was produced in good old Montreal, Quebec…about a three hour drive from me. Montreal also happens to have the best strippers in North America. Just saying. Go Canada!
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