Assassin’s Creed Origins

Ancient Egypt is so cool. Stunning works of bronze-age architecture, endless deserts and oases. Camels. Thousands of years of humans living along the Nile. So long-lasting that Cleopatra lived her life closer to ours than to the architects of the great pyramids. Where writing, libraries, and Anne Rice’s vampires all began. 

For the past few games, the Assassin’s Creed series found itself mired in Western Europe with rapidly stagnating gameplay. It took a year off and returned revitalized. By revitalized, I mean borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3’s gameplay and world design, while investing to the usual high degree in creating a historical setting in-game.

Bayek of Siwa is a ‘medjay’, a sort of protector-shaman-civil serviceman. Some time prior to the start of the game, his son was murdered by a bunch of masked dudes sporting animal names like the Jackal or the Scarab. Naturally he decides to hunt them all down. While there’s some hackneyed bits towards the end where the game earns its subtitle, showing how the assassin’s creed began, the revenge story is basically all there is to the plot. A breadcrumb trail of corpses to take you around Egypt, which is so huge the main game doesn’t even take you through all the major zones. Not even close.

Bayek is a good hero. Furious and distraught over the loss of his son, yet buoyed by a paternal kindness that in other circumstances would be his defining trait. In between screaming at bad guys and then stabbing them, he’s trying to be everyone’s Dad. Many quests take this quite literally, helping parents, helping children. Facial tech really excels here, as it did in the Witcher, seeing Bayek’s smile after helping a child complete a task, then watching his eyes tighten and smile start to melt as he remembers. Other quests take on specific period dilemmas, and it’s great to see Bayek get pissed off and angrily growl “blasphemy!” when finding an illegal crocodile tannery in the middle of a city that is supposed to hold the animal sacred.

The modern era of video games is in crisis: There must be enemies to kill, to maim, to execute in 4k, HDR, glory. But who? Narratively and visually, we’ve moved beyond killing without purpose. The solution thus far has been populating the world with unthinking zombie/machine hordes or an ill-defined and ambiguous banditry. AC:O opts for the latter. You spend a whole lot of time in “bandit” camps, bandit forts, bandit hideouts. Who are these bandits? What did they do to deserve such mass slaughter? Why is the ratio of Egyptian citizens to Egyptian bandits basically 1:1? The game is not interested in fleshing this out; they’re ‘enemies’ like orcs or goombas. There are brief segments where it is Greeks or Romans who are the enemy, but the tangled web of Mediterranean imperialism and dynastic incest is certainly not something the series wants to engage with seriously.

I’ve drifted away from big budget Western titles, because they play it safe, both in gameplay and especially in narrative. For example, Ubisoft (maker of AC:O), is about to release Far Cry 5, which takes place in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Montana), but since the game refuses to engage meaningfully with its premise of ultra-right wing terrorists and plays it safe, trying to not to offend anyone (according to reviews), I am absolutely not interested. AC ultimately plays it safe too. You have a rote plot and spend hours killing bandits, but like I said in the first sentence, I get to ride a camel around Ancient Egypt, I get to climb pyramids and plunder tombs and be bitten by snakes. In some very specific cases, I’ll settle for, and indeed be well-satisfied by, an excellent historical setting paired with a good protagonist, regardless of what else may be missing. 

Farcry Primal

farcry

I have an enduring fascination with cave people. What were they like? They were skilled and creative judging from the beautiful cave paintings and monuments they left behind. Inventive with and resourceful at a time when the entire repository of human knowledge was kept through elders and passing on familial wisdom. No doubt occasionally brutal and superstitious, but so are present day humans.

It’s a good thing too, because without the setting, Farcry Primal’s gameplay is pedestrian and tired. I’ve absolutely had it with games that have some kind of special ‘vision’ activated on a button press that changes the color pallette and highlights points/items of interest. Whether it be eagle vision, bat vision, witcher sense, survival instincts, wolf scent, or whatever the hell Farcry calls it. I spent half the game being attacked by neon yellow tigers because there’s no reason not to have caveman vision activated. Not only that, Farcry, like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider and Dragon Age 3 and countless other modern titles, has a full map that requires you to locate scenic areas or conquer enemy outposts to create fast travel points. Hardly terrible on its own but it means the mode of travel and interacting with the environment is an approach we’ve overused for the past 8-10 years.

On top of this, there’s a sense that the game is not entirely finished. There’s totally half-baked features like being able to cook different kinds of food (never used) or the way that you can upgrade your tribe’s huts but only about half of them do anything new at level 2. The various skill trees you can put points into are filled with useless skills and completely uneven in effectiveness — your skill trees are tied to individual characters and 2 or 3 of them (Takkar, Tenjay, and especially Dah) are individually better than all the others combined. Lastly, the controls just kind of suck. They’re imprecise. It’s bafflingly hard to simply feed your pet bear sometimes.

The redeeming element here is that you do this as caveman, speaking some kind of pre-germanic cave tongue. Grunting: Ta-KAR WEN-ja U-dam NEIN! There’s woolly mammoths! Hunting them legitimately made me sad they no longer exist and I started worrying about endangered elephants. At its best, you’re prowling the countryside, sabre-tooth tiger at your side, living the hunt. Likewise, the narrative is best when embracing the setting fully. In one delightfully gross scene, you’re seen lobotomizing one of your tribesman to ‘quiet his skull flames’.

The world and story are enjoyable but like the gameplay, ultimately shallow. Riding mammoths is all well and good, but the plot revolves around your tribe’s conflict with two neighboring tribes, the Udam and Izila, who enjoy eating people and burning them, respectively. And like most game enemies in standard games, they’re everywhere, for you to stab, trample, bite, smash, etc. But they’re people, not goombas. People with faces and motivations. There’s a mechanic that allows you to add people to your village and by the end I had around two hundred, whereas I must have killed thousands of opposing tribespeople. It doesn’t hold up. While you’re rampaging around burning villages, you never actually see any children* and barely any non-combatants. It’s all extremely gamey. I’m left dreaming of the possibilities of a more realized, robust and innovative caveman experience…

*There is one child and one baby used during the narrative, and it feels extremely cheap to use them as an emotional touchstone when the world is otherwise devoid of children. Also, weirdly and hilariously, the engine must not be able to render baby faces so in the scenes in question, the camera is always such that you can only ever see the back of the baby’s head.

Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

ac china

Sometimes you don’t realize you miss something until it’s gone.

The Assassin’s Creed series has a notoriously goofy sci-fi framing story. It bends history to allow its protagonists to be the guiding hand/blade beyond all major events. From Ezio Auditore thwarting the Borgias and murdering their patriarch to Conner-Ratonhnhaké:ton sparking virtually all of the events in the American Revolution. It’s silly. I make fun of it. But it’s somehow charming and absorbing. Chronicles dispenses with the sci fi portion and barely interacts with the history, instead opting for the most phoned in revenge story of all time. Meet Shao-Jun, our nearly entirely character-less main character, as she mumblemumble  loses a magic box and mumblemumble must avenge her brothers and mumblemumblemumble-walking away from the TV now…

Assassin’s Creed’s most valuable and absorbing element is its ability to take you back to another time period, to gorgeously render the Holy Land of the crusades era, the rooftops of Renaissance Italy, or the cerulean waters of the Caribbean’s golden age of piracy. This is more or less impossible to achieve in 2d. Chronicles is pretty and nicely stylized, but it doesn’t feel much like China in the way the 3d games feel like their respective places. It’s an extra shame that the main series has devolved into Things White People Did, so more interesting and varying locales — Chronicles is set to be three games: China, India, and Russia — are shunted to 2d sidestories.

So all and all, this game does not feel like Assassin’s Creed. It’s a fun little timewaster though.

Shao-Jun moves across a 2d plane, with depth. She can run (or swing, with a blade attached to an elastic rope that would be swell to use in 3 dimensions…) into the background or foreground, occasionally several levels deep. Enemies patrol these areas; they have a field of vision displayed on the screen (seen in my screenshot above). If Shao wanders into these fields, the enemies spot her, call reinforcements and charge. Unlike the whirling dervish protagonists of the main series, this hero is extremely vulnerable and easy to kill. Open combat is always a last resort.

The game grades you on how you manage each segment of a level. It splits it up into Shadow (don’t get seen), Assassin (kill everyone without being seen), and Brawler (kill everyone in open combat and don’t get hit). Then there is Gold-Silver-Bronze for each of those types. Unfortunately, not all play styles are treated equally. Shadow means more points than Assassin which means more points than Brawler. It’s strange because Brawler is actually the most difficult and Assassin is the most fun. So if you’re chasing a high score, which you ought to be in this type of game, you have to ignore a large swathe of Shao-Jun’s abilities and learn how to navigate the entire game without ever being seen. It’s satisfying when you nail it, especially with enemy-dense later levels that require some real thought, but I do wish all styles were equally valued.

The game has the good sense to mix it up a bit — some levels dispense with the stealth and turn into a mad dash where you must outrun snaking tendrils of flames, and explosions, and in the most memorable and history-evoking, a Mongol attack on The Great Wall. They’re reminiscent-but-not-quite-as-good as the runner levels in Rayman Legends/Origins. In addition, Chronicles is short and does not overstay its welcome, with repetition or its somewhat shoddy controls. Just enough to get me to pick up Chronicles: India when it arrives.

Quick thoughts: Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV

ac3and4 I finished Assassin’s Creed III months ago. I had too many thoughts. The effort involved vs. finished review seemed a poor investment. The world does not need an AC3 thesis.Then I finished Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was fun, but ultimately kind of bland and not worth writing a review over. So, in an effort to record my experience during all those hours without getting excessive, I am limiting each game to one paragraph each.

Assassin’s Creed III: AC3 stars ‘Connor’*, a half british, half Mohawk man who Forrest Gumps his way through the American Revolution. It’s the least interesting historical period/event from a time-travel tourism perspective — I grew up in New England and these stories were drilled into me ad nauseum, via elementary school and cultural osmosis. The missions are too tightly scripted and controlled since they need to match precise events the player is already familiar with. The frontier stuff — running around on trees, hunting animals, building a homestead, sailing around on my ship — was my favorite part of the game; I could leave the Boston and New York pieces. A Native American protagonist started off promising but devolved rapidly when the plot and character motivation turned to utter nonsense. There’s a major turnaround late where it turns out Connor’s village was destroyed as a result of George Washington’s decisions — but the game is too afraid to denounce the patriots (until after the credits are over) and Conner basically doesn’t react and continues to support the revolution.

*Connor’s real name is a complex and difficult to say in its entirety for a non-native speaker. This leads to a ridiculous scene where Connor’s (black) mentor says something like “Better to pass as an Italian or Arab than an Indian… let’s call you Connor.”

Assassin’s Creed IV: To the golden age of piracy! The Caribbean is beautifully realized here. The plot and world adheres to real history but is elastic enough to be unfamiliar. Piloting a ship is fun, as is island exploration. For a while. The game starts to get repetitive right quick. Boarding ships is exactly the same every time. There’s a bajillion collectibles spread across the world, which dampens discovery and also makes no sense: Why are there 50+ treasure chests per square mile?? Not very pirate-y. Edward, the protagonist, is yet another rogue with a conscience. Feels like Ubisoft got real safe character-wise after Connor wasn’t received well (I thought he was great until the plot stopped making sense). Early in the game, Edward escapes bondage and steals his own ship (the Jackdaw) with a black man and his future first mate, Adewale. Adewale allows Edward to assume ownership of the Jackdaw on account of the color of his skin — ironic that the ownership answer of 1715 doubles as the reason a black man can’t be the main character of a video game in 2013.

Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

child of light

Child of Light is chasing an aesthetic. A cauldron of beautiful art, tranquil music, and a fairy tale story influenced by Disney and Studio Ghibli classics.

The art is indeed gorgeous and mixed with the subdued orchestral tinkling, the atmosphere of the game emerges with an austere beauty. It is the whimsy that is lacking; the dialogue is all text (no speech), and generally rhymes. There’s sad clowns, mercantile mice, 13 year olds with beards. A city where all inhabitants were turned to crows, a city built upon a giant’s scalp. The stuff of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster, but Phantom Tollbooth this is not. It’s hard to make such wonder so bland, especially when backed by such pretty artwork, but the sad truth is that the writing is just not that good. For a tale relying so heavily on rhyme, the couplets do not flow well at all and require some mental word twisting to work out the rhyme. The characters aren’t particularly charming or worthy of emotional investment.

The game starts poorly. You control a single character, walking around a 2d world that does seem particularly friendly to walking. I almost put the game down. But 30-45 minutes in, the little-girl protagonist, Aurora, gains the ability to fly and the gameplay vastly improves. You increase the size of your party and the enemies increase the size of theirs and it starts to feel like a real game.

The combat in Child of Light is reminiscent of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games. Touching an enemy out in the world swaps to a separate screen where your party engages the enemy in turn-based combat. All characters, friend and foe, show up on a bar called the timeline and their portraits move from left to right, and when they reach 80% of the way to the far right, the player can choose an attack. If the character is attacked in the remaining 20%, they lose their move and are shunted backwards down the timeline. The player can only control 2 characters at a time but can seamlessly swap in dormant party members mid-combat.

It’s pretty fun. On the harder of the two difficulties, fights generally require a strategic approach. The game eventually starts to suffer from repetition as every boss fight is a main beastie with two henchmen and the strategy of carefully killing one, then two, and stabilizing to take down the major enemy works literally every time. The game is short so the repetition does not get too tiresome, but I can’t shake the feeling that a more creative approach could have led to far more varied battles.

All said, the game was pretty if a bit sterile. I miss turn based RPGs, so even if it was far from perfect, I’m thankful this game exists and I stuck it out beyond the flightless first act. And it really was very pretty.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

acrNarratives in video games face an intractable problem: the story can find itself in conflict with the gameplay, and will always take a back seat to the profit margin.

The framing device of the Assassins Creed series is this: The Assassin Brotherhood and the Knights Templar have been fighting a secret war across history for thousands of years — basically forever. The Assassins are anarcho-libertines, their creed is literally “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and they promote individual freedom and self determination above all else, consequences be damned. The Templar are pro-authoritarianism, claiming humanity is too weak and self destructive to continue to survive without a guiding hand. Marco Polo was an assassin. The Medicis were templars.

In the present day, a shady pharmaceutical company has designed a machine that allows you to plug in and live the memories of your ancestors. Thus, we can stick NYC bartender Desmond Miles into the machine and he can re-live all the lives of his assassin ancestors. I forget exactly why we’re doing this, but something about the information recovered in the past will allow the aforementioned shady pharmaceutical company to do something Really Bad.

The very first game has Desmond reliving the life of Altair Ibn La’Ahad, a Syrian assassin living in the time of the First Crusade. When it was released, the critics griped about the gameplay being repetitive (it was), the brooding main character dull (he was), and that the story was weak (it was). Yet, I found it profoundly COOL. Running around the Holy Land — Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre — in the middle of the crusades (on the Arab side no less), hunting down armored, clanking templars and leaping off buildings to gasps from the crowd below. It was great! I realized what would be the enduring appeal of the entire franchise: historical tourism. Can’t get enough of it. Show me all the cities.

In the follow-up, time shifted to Renaissance Italy and the ancestor Desmond now locked into was the highly charismatic Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio was about ten thousand times more compelling than Altair; the game time skips through his life, from teenage years to fortyish. To make up for the repetitive complaints of the first game, the gameplay and missions structure was greatly varied and enhanced, though I did find it adhered a little too closely to the modern gameplay trend of leading the player from one map beacon to the next and then exhibiting set pieces via cutscenes. But, whatever, I got to run around the rooftops of Florence and Venice! Ride a horse around the hills of Tuscany! Own a fancy Villa!

The supernatural elements supremely ramped up in this installment and it ends with Ezio busting into a secret room in Vatican (right after he engaged the pope in fisticuffs; seriously) and coming face to face with none other than the Roman goddess, Minerva. Minerva then speaks directly to Desmond (remember, that’s the guy in the high tech machine in modern day) to Ezio’s total confusion. It was actually a pretty cool narrative device. The threat is SO BIG that it crisscrosses centuries and this entire dude’s life/video game culminated in just getting a brief message across time to Desmond in 2011 or whenever it is.

But, then, OK, here’s where the video game narrative issue comes in. Ezio’s story was clearly supposed to end here. He goes on to live his life, no longer important to the plot and never knowing what the hell happened. But because this is a video game, and because, well capitalism, Ubisoft released another game the following year.

Entitled Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we returned to Ezio, who gallivanted off to Rome for dubious narrative goals. The controls were tightened and honed, new features were added, you got to train up a whole cadre of assassins — the gameplay was just all around better. And yes, Ezio’s character arc was already complete, but they recast him as a teacher of others, and more importantly, embroiled him right into the plot of The Borgias.

Yeah. So incase you didn’t pick this up in history class, the Borgias were secret templar and Cesare himself was actually killed by one Ezio Auditore. Anyway, it worked. Cesare was a great villain and I actually bought a Borgia history book due to this game. It is still on my shelf and I swear I’ll read it some day. The framing story took a nosedive, sort of treading water since this game was unplanned, and inexplicably killing off a major character who totally wasn’t supposed to die yet*.

But, as I am sure you can tell by the title of this post, it didn’t end there. Ubisoft released yet another Ezio game. This time he’s old and running around Constantinople… for, uh… reasons. The gameplay really couldn’t go much further at this point — there’s ill-conceived add-ons like tower defense and bomb crafting. Nothing left to squeeze out of Ezio’s character either. There’s flashbacks to Altair that let you re-live scenes the game has already summarized for you in previous games. Faced with yet another unplanned episode, the writers had completely stalled on Desmond’s story and the framing device barely even exists in Revelations. Yet, yet, yet the game is still fun. And Constantinople! Climbing the Hagia Sophia! Visiting the volcanic region of Cappadocia! People calling me Effendi like when I read My Name is Red!

You might wonder wonder why I’m spending all this time summarizing a story that wasn’t even good in the first place. And honestly, 1000 words in, I’m wondering too. But it illustrates a fine point. The story was stalled and hacked apart and I just can’t see it recovering in the next game, but this led to the creation of one great game and one pretty good game. I got to swing around the coliseum in Renaissance Rome and chase fools through the Great Bazaar in Constantinople a few years later. And of course, a giant corporation made millions of dollars. How can you argue that?

 

And yeah, yeah, I know I’m like several AC games behind but I plan to catch up.

 

*So here’s what happened. The character in question, Lucy, was voiced and had the likeness of Kristen Bell. Bell decided she didn’t want to do it anymore, so like the TV shows where a main character suddenly dies when it clearly wasn’t time yet — see Battlestar Galactica, Sliders, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers… — they just bizarrely and disorientingly killed her off!

Responding to fan complaints, Ubisoft released paid extra content where her death is explained (she was a TRAITOR!!), but since they still didn’t have Bell on staff, she only communicates through email. Haha.