Saturday, March 9, 2013

Gaming First Impressions: Assassin’s Creed

What?  You mean I actually do “First Impressions” posts that aren’t about anime?  Perish the thought!

When I was building my computer, the graphics card I bought came with a free digital download of Assassin’s Creed III.  Their way of saying “we’re so glad that you bought our product that we’re going to give you a free game with it!”  I had heard some really good things about the series in the past, and I figured I’d play the two (and two halves, i.e. Brotherhood and Revelations) games that came before it before I got around to the third one.

Assassin’s Creed is sort of two stories: the story of Desmond, a bartender (and former assassin?) who’s been kidnapped and has two people going through his “genetic memories” to find something.  The memories they are going through are the memories of Altair, an Assassin during the time of the Crusades.

So I started with the original, and was instantly drawn in by the fun gameplay and assassinating people and what exactly are these sinister people who have imprisoned Desmond and PARKOUR, YEAH!

And then the game stopped being fun and started to suck.

Basically, the game starts out really strong.  It gives you a great mystery, develops a wonderful world, gives you some fun gameplay that’s easy to learn, and sets you off on a quest for redemption.  And for a level, it’s fun.  It’s fun to watch as Altair goes off on his quest for redemption, it’s fun to try to figure out what’s going on with Desmond, and it’s fun to jump around on buildings collecting flags and hunting down targets.

The only problem is that things don’t get more varied than that.  Here’s how the story so far goes:
-Desmond is being held by two people who are probing his memories looking for some Mysterious Thing™
-Altair ends up in trouble with the Brotherhood of Assassins because he is a Cop Assassin Who Does Not Play By The Rules™
-We really start learning controls in a pretty fluid way that’s still fun.
-Altair goes off to some city to find some dude the Brotherhood wants dead.  There are hints to some larger scheme after he’s assassinated.  Altair relearns a skill afterwards.
-Altair goes off to two more cities to find two other dudes the Brotherhood wants dead.  There are hints to some larger scheme after they’re assassinated.  Altair relearns skills after each.
-Desmond learns a bit more about the people who are probing his mind.  There is DRAMA and MYSTERY.
-Altair goes off to different parts of all three cities to  find three more dudes the Brotherhood wants dead.  There are hints to some larger scheme after they’re assassinated.  Altair relearns skills after each.

I don’t know what happens after that since I haven’t beaten the third mission in that last chunk, but you can see why I’m having issues with the game at the moment.  It’s extraordinarily repetitive, and just extends the length of each “memory block”/level by increasing the amount of repetitive missions in it.  Sure, the first mission is fun.  It’s great to jump around the rooftops of Damascus.  It’s less fun when you’re doing the exact same thing in Acre and Jerusalem, though being given archers as hidden blade fodder provides a bit of new entertainment.  But by the time you have to do it again in all three locations, it’s become a chore.  What’s worse, absolutely everything looks the same.  The landscapes and cityscapes aren’t diverse enough to provide enough good landmarks, and you’re better off navigating by the icons on your map.  The sandbox elements of the game (i.e., gathering all the information instead of just most of it, saving citizens, climbing viewpoints, collecting flags, and taking out Templars) are repetitive and take a terribly long time.  I don’t even know what collecting the flags or defeating the Templars DOES, since there are so many of them and there’s no way to find them other than trial and error or an online guide.

What’s more, the story moves painfully slow.  After the first bit, it gets as repetitive as the gameplay itself.  You’re given pieces of the plot through ambiguous hints, but it’s entirely separate from the rest of the gameplay and there’s not enough to keep me interested.  Your reward for an intensely long session of gameplay is a sparse section of story that probably only makes sense once you’ve played through the game twice, but come on.  With a game this long and repetitive, who has time for that (as well as it would fit, I refuse to say “ain’t nobody got time for that” because using memes instead of your own words is dumb and uncreative and stupid and dumb)?

Also, the game controls?  Mostly good, but the combat controls are terrible.  Your hidden blade is useless in direct combat, you have limited throwing knives, and the swordfights are dependent on unforgiving timing.  You’re given enough health that, after you learn how to counter, you can just hold down the defend button and hack and slash your way through the enemies with counterattacks.  But that makes the battles take much longer.  What’s more, swordfights draw attention and once you’ve engaged in one, it’s easier to take out all the enemies in a long, drawn-out fight instead of running, finding cover, inevitably being spotted right  before you dive in, and repeating until you manage to get away safely.  And rescuing citizens, one of the main sidequests, almost always requires a swordfight that can draw dozens of guards in later missions.

Let me take a moment to compare Assassin’s Creed to The Legend of Zelda (i.e. my favorite game series) because they’re both action adventure games.  Let’s look at what they do differently.

-The Legend of Zelda sends you through varied and diverse locations. This usually prevents players from getting lost.  Assassin’s Creed has buildings that all look the same, forcing you to navigate by the (limited) minimap.

-The locations in The Legend of Zelda take different skills to navigate that usually require a short period of thinking before moving.  Assassin’s Creed is more trial-and-error. instead of being able to plot clear, strategic routes to safety, you’re forced to run around a disorienting maze of streets and rooftops until you stumble across one of the three types of places you can hide.

-The Legend of Zelda usually has quick battles that require just a little strategy, like finding the right angle to attack at in Skyward Sword or figuring out how to best get around a dodongo to attack its tail.  The battles in Assassin’s Creed are less dependent on strategy and more dependent on hoping you press the right button at the right time.  The only exception are the boss battles, and even then the strategy consists largely of “chase the target down or go here and wait for the right time to strike.”

-The Legend of Zelda offers a variety of gameplay between dungeons dependent on manipulating the environment.  In Assassin’s Creed, you do the same thing over and over and over again.

-The Legend of Zelda will often (though not always—I’m looking at you, Spirit Tracks) give you a bit more of the story as you’re moving through each new environment.  Assassin’s Creed gives you the gameplay, then the story, then the gameplay, then the story, etc.

You get the point.  And I get that the Zelda series is based around puzzles while the Assassin’s Creed series is based around stealth, so they’re obviously going to be different in some respects (especially regarding combat and how exactly the gameplay works). 

But I could really choose other Action Adventure games.  Let’s take Dark Souls, for example, which I’ve been playing for a class.  Sure, you’ll do a lot of repetitive things in Dark Souls, but it’s usually the same thing because you died.  That’s because, in Dark Souls, combat takes a lot of strategy.  It’s long and often tedious like it is in Assassin’s Creed, but the difference is the health bar.  Dark Souls won’t let you just charge in and attack because that’s a good way to get killed.  You have to wait for an opening to attack and avoid what attacks you can.  It’s not about pressing the right button at the right time, it’s about watching for right time and waiting until then to press the right button.  Dark Souls has diverse architecture and while it’s possible to get lost, the structure of the buildings are diverse enough that you can usually find your way around with ease once you’ve learned the landmarks.  And most all of Dark Soul’s story is told subtly and is integrated into the gameplay.

So what do I think about Assassin’s Creed?  Well, I actually think that it’s a good game, at least in theory.  It’s got great design and world elements a wonderful concept, and it’s fun.  The only problem is, it’s a good game that happens to suck pretty heavily.  The great gameplay and world are marred by repetitive architecture and some wonky combat controls, and you can only play ninja for so long before you start wanting more from the game—though I’m speaking in terms of quality, since I want less quantity.  It’s a concept that deserved to be great, and it wasn’t.  So I feel disappointed.  Disappointed and betrayed.  And really, that’s about the worst feeling possible.  If something’s inherently terrible, I don’t feel as bad.  But when something with great potential doesn’t capitalize on it, it feels like it’s broken a promise.  A promise to be good.

I hear the sequels are better.  I’m really hoping they are.  Because at the moment, Assassin’s Creed isn’t a game; it’s a chore.

Well, I’ve still got about half of the game to go.  It’ll hopefully pick up after this.  And if it doesn’t, well…the rest of those soldier-assailed citizens can just go ahead and suck it.  They probably were thieves anyway.

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