Tag Archives: Assassin’s Creed

Opinion – Problems with the game factory

I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it.  That ends today.

Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games.  They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map.  The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides.  For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model.  It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.

The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it.  The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development.  The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy.  Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays.  The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time.  With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround.  Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.

That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround.  While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements.  The mini games are a perfect example of this.  The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player.  Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game.  After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay.  At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing.   Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle.  Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow.  To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together.  As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.

The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more.  Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside.  The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do.  Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time.  Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places.  The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage.  In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative.  In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late.  In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything.  They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get.  With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before.  EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures.  Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success.  If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside.  With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.

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Diary – This game is not detail oriented – Shadow of Mordor

I PRESSED Y, DAMN IT.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a surprisingly mediocre game.  I’ll try to review it a little later, but I want to take a little time to investigate one of the major sources of disappointment: getting the small things wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal.  After all, the small things are small things for a reason. However, the little touches in a game are often the most important and draw a line between fun and dull. For a game that got a Metacritic average of 84 and rave reviews from a number of users, Shadow of Mordor misses some of the tiny things that should make the game shine.

Button delays

As my line above might suggest, one of the first issues is combat responsiveness.  Shadow of Mordor pulls from the Assassin’s Creed/Batman school of fighting with timed button presses to fend off attacks.  When it works, battles flow from one swing to the next with the player feeling like an unstoppable badass.  What’s wrong then?  The delay in responding to button presses.  Pressing the appropriate button at the last possible moment doesn’t work because the game will ignore that button long before it removes the button queue above the enemy character’s head.  This isn’t much of an issue in early combat, but as the game becomes more difficult, the small issue creates a large crack.  With numerous enemies on screen attacking and a combat system based on chaining together hits, delayed button responsiveness destroys flow and make it difficult to access high levels of combat.  The little thing becomes a big thing.

Tower placement

Towers serve as Shadow of Mordor’s fast travel system.  Though no map is particularly large, towers allow the player to get around enemy patrols and pointless dead time between missions.  Unfortunately, the towers don’t cover the whole map making some areas difficult to access.  Often these areas are strongholds for enemy forces which means the area is both far from a tower and blocked by combat.  This makes sense during a mission, but becomes frustrating when trying to nab collectibles.  The player can’t take a break from combat (one of the best parts of collectibles), because the tower placement ensures that combat either must take place or be actively avoided.  Whereas a player might collectible hunt in Assassin’s Creed for a break, they must leave Shadow of Mordor to accomplish the same task.

No joy in motion

Most open world games have a mechanic whereby the player can just enjoy running around the world and soaking in the sights.  GTA and the Saint’s Row series have cars and radio stations.  Assassin’s Creed has rooftops and the occasional pirate ship.  Shadow of Mordor has…well….nothing.  The player is confined to his feet most of the time and the occasional ride on a feral Caragor doesn’t help considering how inconvenient it can be to get on one.  This doesn’t hurt basic gameplay as the maps are small, but it does hurt the downtime between missions.  There just isn’t a fun way to get around the game which hurts when that’s all the player wants to do.

Small things often add up to big things when there are enough of them.  Shadow of Mordor’s small things are often wrong and show an ignorance of what makes an open world action game tick.  They take tiny bites out of the player’s enjoyment until only the game’s true strengths are any fun.  Nailing the small things, particular in an open world game where the player will often want to mess around, is the key to making a great game.  Sadly, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t and so isn’t that game.

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Opinion – Status Quo

I’m going to PAX!  Thanks Triforce Quartet!  This is what you get for Sunday’s post.

It seems that every time someone points out that video games have a problem with diversity, vocal members of the community remember fondly of a golden age before all the controversy when men were men and video games were all about fun.  Holders of this view see critics (sometimes called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors) as spoilers of gaming’s Eden-like garden.  Everything was good and fun until SJWs forced the industry to focus on pressing issues of the day rather than making games.  It’s a compelling argument for those who have found their once simple past time polluted with major social and political issues.  Unfortunately, it’s grounded in ignorance.  The issues we’re hearing about were always issues, we just didn’t hear about them.

The stereotypical gamer of the 80s and 90s was a bespectacled nerd whose knowledge of fictional lore was only matched by his inability to connect with others.  Like many stereotypes, there was some truth to this as many social outcasts found their way to the gaming world and drowned their sorrows in magical realms where they could be the hero.  What often gets ignored is that being a social outcast is not confined to white boys.  Many youth from across the spectrum made their way to gaming only to discover that it had been made by and for a very limited audience.  Some moved on to different pursuits and their potential contributions were lost.  For others, the allure of the screen was enough to overcome the fact that they were poorly represented.  They sought out the few games and heroes that they felt best reflected their reality.  They hung on to the few cracks in the wall and accepted what they must because that’s all games were.

Surprise surprise, these people weren’t happy about it.  The commentary we’re seeing now isn’t outsiders who want to ruin our fun, it’s committed gamers who grew up and decided to speak out against the games industry’s singular focus on one type of person.  They aren’t seeking to destroy fun, but rather finally see developers who take them and their needs seriously and who use the medium to explore the realities of the lives of a more diverse set.  These SJWs don’t hate games.  They don’t want to stop Mario.  They just wish that gaming’s leading lights (GTA, inFamous, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, etc) gave them some love (and no, side stories like AC: Liberation or inFamous: First Light don’t count).  They want to see heroes like themselves, which really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

When someone argues for returning to focusing on fun, what they’re actually asking for is keeping games limited to people like themselves.  They, understandably, see the status quo as preferable because the status quo serves them, but it doesn’t serve everyone.  Should anyone be surprised when the losers of a system seek to make it more equitable?   SJWs aren’t deliberately raining on gaming’s parade, they’re asking to be a part of it.  Not surprisingly, they also want gaming to grow up.  Gamers used to get up in arms about whether games counted as art yet, now that a number of games explore that space, we want to pull back.  Well, tough.  Contra isn’t art.  Nor is Mario.  Art has a meaning that SJWs are infusing into old and new game worlds.  It may not be a meaning you like, but that’s also an aspect of art.   

It’s time to stop living in the past.  The past only worked for a select few while others had to put up with something inferior.  We now have the energy and resources to create an inclusive gaming culture that serves the needs of an increasingly diverse group of individuals and that inclusivity is worth far more than any attempt to recapture the days gone by.

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Opinion – What We’re Gaining

I’m a big boy now!

I noted last week that gaming’s old audience of straight, white, male gamers are losing something to the push by the critical and developing industry to be more inclusive.  Acknowledging this matters because it also acknowledges the feelings of those who are most aggrieved by the change and so most likely to oppose it.  The flip side of this argument, and one that is also typically ignored, is that the diversification of gaming actually benefits the old crowd as well.  There is good in the bad and that’s something that worth talking about and promoting.

One of the major problems with the old paradigm is that its conception of its audience is incredibly simplistic.  Gamers are not only seen as a collection of the traits mentioned above, but also as 13 year olds seeking power fantasies.  While that may have been true at one point, the reality is that the player base, even the old player base, has grown and matured far beyond their teenage selves.  Game stories and worlds that once satisfied the pimply crowd no longer have the same impact once they leave those years.  Doom’s “go kill demons” or Ninja Gaiden’s “save the princess” plots can’t compete with the more sophisticated narratives in other mediums.  Yet the Call of Dutys and the Killzones still pedal these mindless tropes like they’re still compelling.  I remember playing Killzone 2 when a character died.  Everyone in the game seemed incredibly distraught but I couldn’t muster an iota of emotion for the mindless muscle mass that just died.  After all, the game had plenty more of him.  Acknowledging that gamers have grown up means that games must grow up as well.  By realizing that gamers are no longer insecure teenagers, developers must now create stories and settings that appeal to a more mature audience.  Every gamer, regardless of how well they were served before, benefits from this.

Along with admitting the audience has matured, developers can now include greater diversity and the avenues that represents.  In an earlier post, I noted that Assassin’s Creed: Liberation protagonist Aveline de Grandpre, while not particularly revolutionary in her character type, still opened up possible gameplay opportunities beyond the traditional AC game.  While appearance certainly mattered for men in AC:Liberation’s colonial setting, the difference between an assassin, a court lady, and a slave were far more different than any man at the time fulfilling similar roles.  Just by having a black, female protagonist, Ubisoft produced an organically new approach to the AC world.  Including other’s perspectives allows developers to think along new lines and with different plots.  The archetypal video game hero is so well worn that it’s hard to break free from the confines that come with.  New characters pulled from diverse worlds can open up new pathways that developers have previously not considered.  Again, pushing the industry beyond its current confines can only benefit all games as new stories, perspectives, gameplay, and worlds develop organically from more diverse views.

In the end, the diversification of gaming shouldn’t be done to benefit the white, male audience.  It should be done so that others can have their stories, dreams, and imaginations explored through the video game space.  People deserve to have characters that they can relate to.  Video games should not be the domain of its old audience.  To my fellow white male gamers I say this: the change will be scary.  Our favorite developers will start projects that don’t target us anymore.  Games will tell new and exciting stories that we cannot relate to or are harder for us to relate to.  Gaming won’t just serve us.  Be excited anyway.  We’ll get new worlds to see through the eyes of new people.  We’ll get new gameplay and stronger characters.  Most importantly, the world will get to experience games the way we did and find stories that have meaning to them.  That can’t be a bad thing.

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Review – Assassin’s Creed Liberation – PC

A look back at how far we’ve come.

The Assassin’s Creed series is difficult to measure.  The yearly incremental improvements mean that the previous innovations are never more than a year away lending a feeling of familiarity to even to upgrades.  Tiny decisions with significant improvements to gameplay are lost because they rarely substantially change the game and are soon absorbed into the collection of traits that are “Assassin’s Creed.”  Fortunately, and sadly, the rerelease of the PS Vita exclusive Assassin’s Creed Liberation shows us the welcome changes the series has made in the past few years.

AC Liberation is stylistically and narratively an extension of Assassin’s Creed 3.  It features a flatly heroic protagonist, running along the tree branches, and an 18th century time period.  Furthermore, it contains the series staples of stabbing things, collecting things, and stabbing things so you can collect then collect them.  AC is nothing if not consistent.  What it doesn’t contain is the small innovations added in the fourth iteration of the main series.  Edward Kenway benefits from fast travel, automatically revealed collectibles, and a refined economy feeding into useful upgrades.  These may seem like small additions, but their non-appearance feels like something major is missing. The first time you have to run 300 meters over the territory you’ve just covered, you’ll wish the synchronization points contained the 18th century Caribbean’s teleportation devices.  These tiny absences deny the game a sense of flow that comes naturally to its successor and would have been totally unnoticeable had I not played AC 4. 

AC Liberation does introduce a few new ideas.  Aveline dons different costumes giving her powers commiserate to the social role she inhabits.  As an assassin, Aveline can run, jump, and brutally murder in line with her digital and historic predecessors.  As a lady, Aveline loses the ability to run in favor of being able to access certain areas, experience reduced notoriety, and charm lovely gentlemen to fight for her.  As a slave, Aveline blends in with a different crowd, can free run like the assassin, but collects notoriety much quicker for strange (assassin) behavior.  The system is interesting, but largely pointless.  The assassin guise gets the most use both throughout the story and when exploring the world.  The other two costumes are largely foisted on the player without regard for their interest in actually using them.  This feels like a missed opportunity where players could have planned assassinations using a combination of costumes rather than having Ubisoft pick out what pretty outfit you’ll wear to school.  Given the lack of ambition that plagues this game, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Another series staple is the inclusion of a bland protagonist in the form of Aveline de Grandpre.  Born of a slave mother and a merchant father, Aveline has the kind of mixed-race heritage that probably should matter in 18th century slave owning Louisiana, but doesn’t.  Instead, she is surrounded by a bubble of tolerant folk all working to stop the slavers who hate puppies and sunshine.  The story largely lacks tension or character worthy of the term resulting in no real sense of development or interest.  Everyone is a flat, two-adjective shard of a character who’s every interaction could be predicted from their first cutscene.  The only sense of greater character depth belongs to Agate, Aveline’s mentor, who goes emo and writes bad poetry somewhere in the third act.  The game attempts to make this feel like a major plot point, but handles the transition so nonsensically that it falls completely flat.

So is AC Liberation worth buying?  That depends.  This is more Assassin’s Creed.  There are tons of things to collect, a solid world to explore, and plenty of reasons to kill the badness.  It’s all competently arranged and the Vita heritage doesn’t appear to have hurt the graphics overmuch.  AC Liberation is capable of satisfying your Assassin’s Creed urge if you have one.  If not, wait till next year.

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Opinion – The future of female characters

The future is now

There has been considerable debate about the role and portrayal of women in video games.  Women are rarely the player controlled protagonist and often fill roles designed to spur on the (usually) male lead rather than represent characters of their own with their own story arcs.  Recently, the highlighting of the problem has encouraged developers to provide meatier roles for women with mixed results.  What hasn’t been discussed is what these new female characters will look like in the future.  To that end, I introduce you to what I think is an example of what will be the most common female archetype: Aveline de Grandpre.

Protagonist of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Aveline dons the cowl of an assassin to kill slavers and fight Templars in 18th century Louisiana.  Using her training, costumes, and slave heritage, Aveline opposes injustice with all the nobility that we have come to expect from the traditional male leads in video games.  She’s clever, passionate, and strong.  She also possess the rather boring traits of those heroes in that she never faces moral conflict and her development can be characterized as young heroine to slightly older heroine.  This is what makes her the female lead of the future.  Aveline is a gender-swapped example of the flat male lead that dominates the current landscape.  The future of women in games is not a bold exploration of the unique roles and situations that women face, but the application of existing archetypes to women.

The reason for this is simple: archetypes are easy.  The average game works hard to avoid offensive leads, but often does very little to make them compelling.  Pick an Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Final Fantasy and you’ll find them chock full of good-hearted souls whose greatest character flaws are easily overshadowed by their pursuit of justice.  While some of these characters have additional depth, most are designed to just be “good.”  Not only are their personalities on the side of the angels, but the situations they’re placed in allow them to easily fulfill the role of heroes.  This allows the player to engage in a power fantasy without getting into the messy bits of human frailty.  Aveline, and many of her successors, will likely fill this role.  Changing a character from male to female does not make adding depth any easier.  In short, the future of women in video games is pretty much the future of men in video games.

That’s not to say there won’t be some variations.  The Assassin’s Creed series is a work of historical fiction and so must at least attempt to adhere to some historical conventions.  Women were treated differently in the past and so will lend themselves to different roles and gameplay.  The same can be said of existing cultures and imagined worlds.  Assassin’s Creed Liberation’s costume/class swap is a perfect example of this.  Aveline fills multiple social roles in the setting and these roles each offer unique styles of gameplay.  Still, the exploration of different game mechanics does make complex characters any easier.  We should expect that heroic characters with minor flaws will dominate video games and that this trend will not exclude women.

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