Sunday, February 03, 2013

Throne Of Games

After my uninspiring playthrough of Dishonored post-Christmas, I got all nostalgic and misty-eyed for Assassin's Creed. It’s okay, I didn’t break out the whole series for a second go – that would’ve involved a lot of hours. But it’s nice to reminisce, once in a while, about a game that got it right.

Mostly. Eventually.

See, I’m not saying there aren’t flaws. From the original Assassin's Creed through ACs II, Brotherhood, Revelations and III there were mistakes and they each came with their own set of gripes. But they grew and evolved and ultimately delivered on their promise. And more besides.

My affair with these games began with AC II – I then hopped back to the beginning when I picked up the first game at bargain basement price. An odd way to approach a series, but no different to how I got into Babylon 5. With Straczynski’s TV opus, I was drawn into the developing Shadow War in Season 2 and was prompted to go back and give the first season a second chance (I’d initially dismissed it as pretty mediocre fare after a couple of episodes). With good old 20/20 hindsight, this was probably a better guarantor of my being hooked. AC, the first, was riddled with flaws and shortcomings compared to the second and I’m not sure I would have been so enamoured with the experience. But I think I could appreciate its strengths more in light of how it was destined to grow.

Now, (SPOILER ALERT), I should say from the outset I was never really taken with the series’ central premise; the sci-fi element of the Matrix-like Animus detracted from the gorgeously realised and thoroughly immersive historical settings (SPOILER AHOY!), all those intervening DaVinci Code-style contemporary sequences were at best a distraction, at worst an irritation (SPOILER COMING UP ANY MOMENT NOW), the modern reluctant assassin, Desmond, was a wet blanket and (SPOILER) I was glad that he croaked in the end. Any future instalments in the series will benefit from his absence.

Heartless, I know, but there it is. But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of lovingly crafting those historical settings (as Ubisoft so clearly have) it’s small wonder I would rather have spent all my time in those rich playgrounds. The Animus also had an annoying habit of erecting all these white barriers everywhere, declaring certain areas off-limits until certain points in the story – and those were a huge eyesore, scarring the otherwise beautiful illusion the developers had worked so hard to create. The only thing you could do was turn about, ride on and try to forget you had seen such a dreadful thing plastered across the landscape.

Even with those fences erected everywhere, the games managed to be more free-roaming than most. I just tended to figure they could have dispensed with them altogether, let you wander where you pleased and simply introduced the story elements in those locations as and when the plot called for them. For example, if you weren’t meant to meet Machiavelli yet you could have been allowed to explore his neighbourhood, collect all those interminable feathers, Templar flags and what have you, trespass on the rooftops, take down a few unsuspecting guards, pick a pocket or two etc and generally have fun, just don’t have old Niccolo present.

Frankly, even a barred city gate is preferable to a giant wall of white nothingness like something out of Doctor Who’s The Mind Robber. We don’t want to be reminded we’re only in the Animus and could be pulled back to the role of Dismal, I mean Desmond, at any time.

To be fair, of the historical characters, the original Altair is a bit one-dimensional, but has that advantage of a touch of mystique by remaining a hooded avatar on which you can project a range of personality traits of your choice. The later characters in the series, Ezzio, Connor and Hatham are more well-rounded and fleshed out, to the extent that – I found – it was nice to reflect their personalities in your play style. I was less-inclined by far to engage in wholesale slaughter as Ezzio, the charmer, for example, while a pragmatic ruthlessness crept into my play as Hatham, followed by a rather reckless thirst for revenge after Connor’s village is torched. The twist with Hatham (if you’re lucky enough, like I was, not to have had it spoiled) comes as a genuine shock and yet the revelation did nothing to undermine my liking for the character. Nicely handled.

The way in which the series threads historical characters and detail into its events is masterful. I’m not saying it should be employed as an educational tool (there’s plenty to learn from the databases and just by playing the series I often found myself fascinated with many aspects of the featured period, but let’s be honest students would never get any work done). But it all serves to bring the game world to life in a way that very few fantasy settings are ever going to achieve.

Differences in architecture and terrain also oblige the gameplay to adapt, particularly in AC III, with its generally lower rooftops and extensive woodlands. All that movement through the tree branches brought a whole new skill set to be mastered and was tricky at first, with fingers and thumbs trained on previous AC games, but it wasn’t too long before it was just as fluid and second-nature as all the rooftop activity of before. The combat system went through a number of changes with each instalment too and while not perfect I rate it as one of the best, facilitating some great swash-buckling free-flowing action – lightly peppered with cinematic flourishes.

And, speaking of buckled swashes, I especially enjoyed the historical naval action that brought another added dimension to the Assassin's world.

Of course, it being software, it’s all at least as well-seasoned with glitches and failings. AC III, for instance, featured a lovely peaceful little side project of just observing various workers toiling cheerfully away on the homestead – but a project, courtesy of a bug, I never did complete. They say they issued a fix but if I wanted to waste more hours watching farm labourers I daresay I could do that locally. And some of the challenges, if you wanted that 100% completion, were excessively fraught with difficulty. Most notably a climactic chase where you had to keep up with the main villain without brushing the shoulders of any innocent bystanders on a crowded dock with your passage barred at frequent intervals by armed guards and a return to the starting line in the event of any fail – and fail you would, lots. Not only can I attest to the toughness of this one, but a couple of days after I’d finally succeeded against all the odds, Ubisoft apparently issued a ‘fix’ to make it a little easier. Thanks.

But I mention that by way of an amused grumble in honour of their impeccable timing. Because none of these gripes were serious enough to damage my impression of the games overall. As I say, the biggest detractions lay in the Animus and the dull Von Daniken story arc that linked the different period pieces together. Give me a standalone setting as richly realised as these, let me loose in them and I’ll be just as happy if not more so. I’m reminded in many respects of Rock Star’s superb Red Dead Redemption, where I was perfectly content between missions and quests to ride around, explore and enjoy the scenery. Anything, really, to postpone the end of the story and spend a little more time in the world presented.

It’s the model they should have used for a Game Of Thrones game (instead of this less than stellar effort), with its ideal balance of (mostly) free-roaming sandbox play in a sumptuously detailed - and populated – world, interwoven with a tale of conspiracy and political intrigues. Of course, the Game Of Thrones 'version' would necessarily be grittier, darker and dirtier but the essential building blocks are all there. (Taking things in a brighter direction, it would also be the best model for an Asterix The Gaul game, with plenty of scope for bashing Romans and biffing wild boar in the course of an entertaining tale.)

Which is why, ultimately, I say the series delivers on its promise and more. On top of providing a rewarding journey and many hours of engaging (and more than just your average no-brainer) entertainment, it establishes a standard and a model that other games could do well to look up to and perhaps emulate.

Ubisoft, I hope, will continue to learn from their mistakes while they – and other developers – build on everything they got right.


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