Monday, January 31, 2011

Dickwolves and Why They Are a Problem

WARNING: This entry contains terminology that some may find triggering in terms of sexual assault post-traumatic stress. Please be advised. Scroll to the very last paragraph to avoid the triggers and get to the crux of the issue, should you feel the need. Thank you.

I've been watching the Dickwolves issue unfold for a while now, and I have to admit, I'm shocked at some of the behavior exhibited by members of the games community.

For those who have yet to catch up, this particular Penny Arcade comic started quite the uproar a few months back, and then fuel was added to the fire when PA released a t-shirt associated with said comic. Many have said they cannot understand what the problem is, as they found the comic to be humorous, and the shirt moreso. To me, the issue isn't so much the comic itself. My issue is with the rather asinine "apology" (so called) they offered in response to said uproar.

Now, many have coverd this issue much more eloquently than I ever could. That said, I feel I must add my 8-bits here, as the only way to learn from a situation such as this one is to speak up and share the knowledge we have.

People who are not familiar with the aftermath of non-consentual sexual activity and sexual assault don't know that even the word "rape" itself can be a "trigger" to those who have been through such a traumatic event. It's like a car backfiring behind a war veteran near a crowded sidewalk: "Triggers" can send a person with PTSD down the rabbit hole of their own personal hell, head first, and it can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days to come back out again.

Anyone who has any experience with post-traumatic stress disorder will tell you triggers fall into three categories. The first is things that will most certainly set you off. I have a friend who was assaulted while in the military, and this individual experiences a PTSD event whenever the scent of motor oil is in the air. The poor thing can't even take a car into JiffyLube to be serviced; this person's spouse has to do it, so ingrained is the connection between that smell and the experience that changed them forever.

Then there's the things that have a 50/50 shot of setting you off. The song that was playing in the background during the event. The color of the shirt the assailant was wearing. The texture of the surface on which the act took place. Sometimes, they do nothing to a victim; s/he can encounter these things, and depending on the circumstances, things will be just fine. Other times, the victim comes in contact with one or a combination of those things, and The Event comes roaring back to the forefront of his/her mind, causing untold mental, and sometimes physical, anguish.

Lastly, there are those things that no one ever, in a million years, thought would trigger an episode of post-traumatic stress. Once, while out shopping with a friend, we passed by a pretzel stand, and out of nowhere, my friend stopped dead in the walkway and began to shake violently. I was completely unprepared for the experience, as I couldn't for the life of me understand what was going on. After calling my then-boyfriend for help, he called our friend's other half, who came and retrieved us from the mall more than an hour later.

It wasn't until we had returned home and my friend was given a sedative and put to bed that it was explained to me that this person whom I had known for years had been sexually assaulted by a family member in the past. When I asked if the pretzel shop had any significance in regard to the event, my friend's husband said, no, not that he knew of. When asked later, my friend couldn't pinpoint what it was about the location that triggered the response, only that one minute, we were walking through the food court, and the next, we were in a pink-painted bedroom with white crown molding, and there was no way out.*

This, ladies and gentleman, is why "trigger" warnings are important. Do I think the pretzel shop should have had a trigger warning posted on their door? Of course not. Don't be ridiculous. I do, however, believe that once it was made clear why a trigger warning would have been prudent on a comic such as that one, Penny Arcade should have added one. Instead, they chose to take the low road, and fan the flames of controversy. That is my main issue with this entire situation. While I, myself, do not find the word "rape" to be a trigger**, many men and women (and yes, men can be victimized in this way, whether we want to believe it or not) cannot speak the word, let alone hear it or read it without reliving very painful memories.

Why is it so wrong that we show some compassion to a portion of our community (people we raid with, spawn camp with, swap in-game items with on a daily basis) by adding a simple warning when it comes to discussing something this serious? Why is it so wrong to hope that someone's financial bottom line isn't as important as making their demographic feel safe when reading their website or paying to attend their conventions? How could doing such a thing possibly be a threat to you or anyone else?

It isn't. And that's why we're angry.

*I posted these annecdotes with the permission of the people involved. I mentioned no names, nor did I get very specific, to respect the privacy of people I love and adore.

**In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I was nearly a victim myself at the tender age of fifteen; I just happened to be lucky enough to be within reach of a tire iron at the time. I'll let you draw your own conclusions, there.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Game Review: Assassin's Creed 2

One would think with all the misgivings and complaints I had about the first game, I wouldn’t have given Assassin’s Creed 2 a ghost of a chance. Many of my friends thought I would just skip over it in favor of playing something completely different than came out at the same time, like, say, Dragon Age: Origins. While I did play BioWare’s newest RPG almost as soon as it was released, I didn’t hesitate to pick up Assassin’s Creed 2 two weeks later.

Typically, I avoid the hype machine for games as much as possible, which is no mean feat given that I work for one of America’s largest video game retailers. The reasons for my behavior are many, but the biggest one is. . .I’ve been burned before. Call me jaded, but I’ve been deceived by the marketing machine of many a company too many times to remain more than cautiously optimistic when a new game is announced. (*cough*TOMB RAIDER*cough*)

That said, from the moment it was confirmed the sequel to one of the most celebrated (and simultaneously maligned) games of this console generation was to take place in Italy during the Renaissance, my interest was piqued. For the first time in many, many years, I followed the news for a video game like a sports fan follows his favorite team. By the time November 17th, 2009 rolled around, I could barely sleep the night before, and bemoaned the fact that my local game store wasn’t holding a midnight launch event, so excited was I to get my hands on this game.

And for once, I wasn’t disappointed.

This time around, you play not as Altair, but as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young Florentine gentleman who. . .

Okay, okay, wait. Hold it. I can’t type another word before I clear something up. If you’ve not played any of the AC titles, and wish to avoid spoilers of any kind, you need to speed scroll to the Verdict section at the end of this review this. very. instant.




All ashore who’s going ashore? Good. Now we can continue.

Remember in my review of the original game I mentioned a story-framing device that, while not altogether believable, was somewhat different and interesting? Roughly five minutes into the game, the plot-bomb that you’re not actually Altair ibn-La’Ahad from Medieval Palestine, but a modern-day assassin-turned-bartender named Desmond Miles is dropped on your head with the force of a falling stone gargoyle. As it turns out, the Templars have not been defeated, as the end of Assassin’s Creed would have you believe, but gone into hiding. Their near-future cover, a corporation called Abstergo Industries, is funding their fervent search for the Apple, which has gone missing since they last had their hands on it. With no clue as to where it could be, they’ve created a device called the Animus to search the genetic memories of Altair’s descendants.

"Look, we're supposed to be searching Ezio's memories. Why are you rooting through my time at band camp?"

As I said before, it’s not a completely believable bit of sci-fi, but as far as plot devices go, they could have done worse. (Mass Effect 2, I’m looking at you, but we’ll have our parent-teacher conference later.)

Anyway, in the first game, Desmond has been captured by two scientists, Doctors Lucy Stillman and Warren Vidic, and is forced into the Animus to help them find out what his ancestors did with this shiny bauble that could allow them to control the world. All is not as it seems, however, and at the beginning of the sequel, Lucy helps Desmond escape the Abstergo facility, and spirits him away to an Assassin safehouse. There, it is revealed that the higher ups in the Brotherhood wish for Desmond to enter their version of the Animus so that he may learn all the awesome parkour and blade-wielding ways of those who came before, but in an extremely abbreviated amount of time. The risks to his psyche are many, since prolonged use of the machine makes it harder and harder to discern reality from (genetic) memory, and many of the previous subjects (most notably, Subject 16, who drained his own blood to leave messages on the floor and walls of his cell for whomever was unfortunate enough to occupy it next) went nuts or died. Or both. Despite personal danger, Desmond agrees, and we are plunged into 1459 Florence to be introduced to another of his bloodline, Ezio Auditore de Firenze.

Ezio (right) speaking with his older brother, Federico.

One cannot talk about the rest of the game without first considering the new protagonist. Ezio is a charming, intelligent, lovable rogue who is fiercely loyal to his friends and family. When compared to his ancestor Altair, he’s practically a teddy bear. (Well, a stylishly-dressed teddy bear carrying an arsenal of deadly weapons and a grudge the size of Vatican City, but still.) The glimpses of his younger, carefree days, which serve to mask the initial tutorial system enough to keep the player from feeling ‘babied’, showcase his naivete and optimism, and goes a long way toward making the player give a damn about what happens to him.

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when we (and Ezio) are forced to simply watch as half his family is executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

In the aftermath of the wrongful deaths of his father and brothers (and the off-screen. . .mistreatment of his mother and sister), the young Auditore we’ve come to know and love vanishes, to be replaced by a man bent on revenge. We can’t help but mourn the loss of the innocent boy we’d only just gotten to know, even as we cheer for the man who will avenge those lost to both of them.

The Good

There is a saying that states, “God is in the details,” and in some ways, the success of Assassin’s Creed 2 can be accredited to this idea. The design team (which grew to nearly 140 individual designers, artists, coders, testers, and historical consultants over the course of development) fixed a lot of things players had issues with in the first game. For that, Ubisoft currently has my loyalty and respect. Unlike many other franchises, they actually gave a damn about what the fans had to say, and that makes them aces in my book.

First and foremost, the open world consisting of the city-states of 15th century Italy is mind-boggling huge and breathtakingly beautiful, much like Ubi’s depiction of the Medieval-era Holy Land. The difference is, this time around, there are things one can do outside the main storyline other than collect flags and scale Viewpoints. From treasure hunting and chasing down pickpockets, to taking on assassination contracts, to raiding ancient tombs to recover lost Brotherhood antiquities, you’ll not lack for things to do if you need a break from the primary plot.

"We're following the leader, the leader, the leader. . ."

Getting from one end of the map to the other has also become more enjoyable, as the horseback riding has been drastically overhauled, and there is now a fast-travel system (thanks to the invention of carriages) that is available to players almost from the outset of the game. It comes at a price, of course, but when you’ve got limited time in your busy schedule to play games, not wasting time walking ever-so-slowly past a patrol every three seconds makes life much, much better.

The musical score, voice-acting, and wardrobe design are all top-notch, and, combined with the addition of a day/night cycle and an in-game economy, all come together to make Ubisoft’s (mostly accurate) vision of historical Venice, Florence, and Tuscany more vibrant and engaging than the setting of its precursor. Thanks to said economy, the player can now upgrade Ezio’s weapons and armor, too, as well as purchase medicine to cure what ails him after a bad fight. With the revamped combat system, these three things are essential, as the size of your health meter is now directly tied to what kind of armor you’re wearing.

Speaking of controls, the Puppeteering System as a whole has received an upgrade, making scaling buildings much faster and outrunning enemies somewhat easier to manage. Lining up jumps can still be a major pain in the neck, but given that you now have a means of healing yourself quickly, falling from a height less than seven stories is less likely to kill you. The addition of Smoke Bombs and the ability to toss money on the ground (thus using the surrounding crowds as a mean of distraction) allows for disengaging targets to give you a chance to run away, which is a welcome change to the “you’ll fight, and you’ll like it” way of doing things the previous game seemed to employ.

The number and type of places to hide has changed, too, and for the better. Besides the old standbys of hay piles, gardens, and benches, you can now blend in with any crowd of civilians, rather than having to wait around for a passing group of Scholars, who are conspicuously absent in this tale. As you gain allies throughout the region, you can also hire thieves, mercenaries and courtesans to either distract or fight your enemies so that you may sneak past them to your intended destination undetected. This adds a much-needed shot in the arm to the promised-but-poorly-delivered stealth gameplay we’ve seen up until now.

Oh, and unlike Altair, Ezio can swim. Not only can you roam Venice without fear of dying in a mud puddle, you can dive from buildings into canals and swim beneath the surface, escaping detection from those on the docks and rooftops. It is especially satisfying to reach up from beneath the water to grab a guard by the belt and drag him down to a watery death. Well done, Ubi. Bonus points for creativity, there.

Thankfully, we are not required to visit an old-world dry cleaner after every high dive.

Many of the non-player characters from the original game were somewhat interesting, but still more of them were bland and static. As an amateur history buff, this made me very sad, as the term “stranger than fiction” applies to no better tale than the history of the ancient world. Thankfully, AC2 is not lacking for colorful and spellbinding characters. From a nun who runs a bordello to a mercenary with a peculiar relationship with his sword of choice to a stranded countess abandoned by her gondola pilot, you’ll be checking the database at every turn just to see if these people are “for real.” The most noteworthy of these NPCs is Leonardo da Vinci. In this game, Leonardo is to Ezio what “Q” is to James Bond.

Leonardo da Vinci: Intellectual Badass

Let me say that again for those in the back of the class: Leonardo friggin’ da Vinci is your quartermaster. The weapons that can’t be purchased from the shops, such as a duplicate of your signature hidden blade (which makes stabbing two dudes in the throat at one time possible) and a wrist-mounted single-shot pistol, are all Leonardo’s doing. He also pulls together some prototype toys for you to play with, like his famous Flying Machine, and while we don’t get to see (or use) often enough for my liking, they’re still pretty damn cool.

Ezio is nothing if not efficient.

The Bad

Even with all the improvements made to the game as a whole, there are still bits that feel strange or downright irritating. The controls, while much improved, still offer moments where you want to hunt down the designers and ask them why the hell they hate us so much. I mean, there’s an entire sequence that should have been short and sweet and to the point, yet it took me a good 40 minutes because I had to remember how to jump from a ledge to a horizontal beam directly over my head from a standing position. Nothing in the game prior to that moment required such a move, and it had been at least twelve months since I had rage-quit the previous title in the series. This, I suppose, is one of the draw backs of open-world gameplay: Since you can play in any order you choose, you may miss out on key experiences that will further fill out your repertoire of moves for certain missions, and you’ll find yourself saying, ‘Well, THAT would have come in handy a few hours ago.”

Another drawback, albeit a somewhat minor one, is the jagged difficulty curve that results from this sort of setup. In some places, things are unnecessarily difficult; in others, things are so easy you have to wonder if you’re being punk’d. Now, I understand that not everything a wetworks guy does to prepare for a hit is action-packed dynamite. That’s not what I’m talking about. It seems the training regimen for city security forces didn’t change much between the 12th and 15th centuries, if the behavior of the AI is any indication. While they seem to be slightly more intelligent than their AC1 brethren, there are still times where you have to wonder if some of these jerks are clairvoyant, as they really shouldn’t be able to see you when you’re hanging off a ledge behind them.

On a completely different subject, it feels like the designers crammed too much stuff into the game. It feels like an attempt to overcompensate for making the world in AC1 so bloody empty, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker, it does make one wonder if they thought everything through. The biggest example of this is the oft-debated purpose of your home base, a Renaissance version of Masayaf called Villa Auditore.

I go back and forth frequently on how I feel about the aspect of the game, but in the end, I filed it under this heading because I can’t really decide one way or another if it is good or just plain silly. After the assassination of Ezio’s father and brothers, our fledgling hero whisks the female members of his family to Monteriggioni, in hopes of keeping them safe while he hunts down those responsible for ruining their lives. Once there, Mario Auditore, an uncle, hands over the running of the family fortress to Ezio’s baby sister, Claudia, as Ezio will be too busy with his training and quest for revenge to deal with the bookkeeping. In turn, she asks Ezio (that is to say, you) to determine which renovations to the villa and the surrounding town must be done in what order.

On the one hand, this is pretty neat, as with each improvement you make to the town, travelers and townspeople begin showing up when you wander the streets as a sort of living visual indicator of how Monteriggioni is seen in the eyes of the surrounding towns and cities. The better you make the town, the more attractive it looks to others as a tourist spot, and the more tourists show up, the more money you make.

On the other hand, while this seems pretty straight-forward, many will soon realize the in-game economy is rendered unbalanced by how much money you make from your real estate investments. Between the money made from missions, side quests, and treasure hunting (and the occasional romp as a pickpocket, which is a lot more amusing than it was the last go around), you’re already living the easy life. You’ll want for nothing, as you’ll be able to replenish your supplies or buy new armor on a whim before you’re halfway through the story. Add the income from Villa Auditore, and you’re not just swimming in florins, you’re practically drowning. Even if you buy up every weapon, set of armor, and painting available, and never let your supply of poisons and medicine drop below three-quarters full at any given time, you’ll still have more money than you know what to do with.

For this, I blame Claudia. Isn’t this what younger siblings are for, after all?


As I alluded earlier, the tutorial system is much better than it used to be, which makes things easier to grasp for players new to the franchise. However, the “previously on Assassin’s Creed” style introduction to the overarching storyline was very weak, and left people like my husband (who had never played the previous installment) scratching their heads with a look on their faces that clearly said, “What the hell was that all about?”

Also in the realm of “what the fu--” plot-points is a set of side quests that leads you to something labeled “The Truth.” Subject 16, apparently not satisfied with leaving clues for you in truly sanguine ink upon his death, saw fit to encrypt certain memories recorded during his Animus sessions, obscuring their data to anyone other than another descendant. This in and of itself is pretty cool as far as gameplay mechanics go, since you can only find the twenty files by looking for strange glyphs on buildings within your genetic memories. (Though, how this is remotely possible, since he was dead before you even showed up at Abstergo, is anyone’s guess.) What makes this so weird is the freakish plot twist this throws into the mix. If you finish this series of mini-memories before completing the main mission line, it completely spoils the ending for you.

Which brings us to the wholly-unexpected ending of this beautiful opus. Ubisoft seems to have a penchant for mind-bending endings as of late, because the ending to the last game? It has nothing on the world-shattering information dropped in your lap this time. Again, won’t spoil it for you, but the running theme of “everything is not as it seems,” definitely holds true.


It has often been said that one should not judge a sequel purely on the performance of its predecessor, and Assassin’s Creed 2 is a perfect example. Had I judged it unworthy of my time based solely on the merits (and pitfalls) of its ancestor, I would have missed out on a really great game. While my declarations on the previous title still stand, I would absolutely pay full price for this episode again if I had to do things over again. A new copy goes for $29.98 (with a used copy coming in at ten bucks less), and with improved, free-roaming gameplay, a compelling story, and dazzling visuals, I’d consider it money well spent.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Technical Difficulties

As some of you can probably tell, the previous post has been randomly disappearing and reappearing since it went up. I'm fervently trying to figure out why this is happening, but it could take a bit before the issue is resolved. Please hang in there, and watch my Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates.


Game Review: Assassin's Creed

Taking the term "stalker" to a whole new level.

Back in late 2007, two games came onto the video game scene that really grabbed my attention. The first was
Mass Effect, BioWare’s role-playing game/third-person shooter hybrid, and Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Montreal’s first action-adventure title since their much-celebrated Prince of Persia trilogy came to a close two years earlier. These two titles came out within one week of each other, and from where I was standing at my retail job, they garnered a goodly chunk of the holiday shopping dollars spent that season.

To be perfectly frank, these two games were the entire reason I purchased an Xbox 360 in the first place. Up until then, most of the titles that had come out for both “next gen” consoles simply weren’t doing it for me. Too many first-person shooters and racing games (two genres that I will fully admit to being HORRIBLE at playing) for my liking, and not much in the way of role-playing games. Once these games were announced and subsequently released, however, I ran out of excuses: The time had come to upgrade, and upgrade, I did.

Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all time. That, though, we will discuss at a later date. Today, we’re going to talk about Assassin’s Creed.

In Assassin’s Creed, you play Altair ibn La-Ahad, a member of the Hashshashin at the time of the Third Crusade. The Hashshashin, or Brotherhood of Assassins, are at war with a rival faction that has a familiar name but unfamiliar purpose: The Knights Templar. According to Altair’s mentor, Al Mualim, the Templars wish to bring about world peace by stripping mankind of their ability to think freely. To this end, they seek an artifact called the Apple, supposedly the same apple from the Garden of Eden. The Assassins, while also wishing for peace, feel that this plan is far too extreme (as how can one be human if he lacks free will?), and race to reach the Apple before their enemy can take over the world. As the Brotherhood’s top man, Altair’s job is to eliminate nine prominent Templars to not only ascertain the relic’s location, but to free the people of the Holy Land from fear and oppression.

There is more to the story, but I refuse to spoil it for you. So, while I won’t go into too much detail, I will say that as a method of driving the plot forward, it’s pretty darn unique and special.

Not entirely believable, mind you, but still pretty cool.

The Good

One of my biggest pet peeves in action-adventure and role-playing games is that maps usually leave much to be desired in terms of actually giving you information that helps you get from point A to point B in a quick-time fashion. I have thrown up my hands and rage-quit many a game simply because I couldn’t bloody well find my way through the terrain to my next destination. In many games, it feels like the maps are tacked on as an afterthought, and in some cases, are buried within menus so deeply you have to click through 4 or 5 layers to find it.

Not here.

I’m happy to say that Assassin’s Creed takes it’s cartography very seriously. Scattered throughout the Holy Land are Viewpoints, high points in the landscape that you climb up to in order to get the lay of the land. Literally. Once you’ve synchronized the area surrounding the Viewpoint, new things pop up on your map, and finding things you need (or just neat stuff to do) becomes much, much easier. Once you’re done surveying the scene in your immediate vicinity, it’s time to come down from your perch by performing a Leap of Faith. By holding down two buttons, Altair surges forward and performs an elegant swan dive with a half-gainer into a conveniently-placed pile of hay.

While that sounds like it would lose it’s novelty after the first dozen times, I can tell you right now it never gets old.

Viewpoints and the Leaps of Faith both tie into one of the more enjoyable parts of the game, which is the free-roaming exploration of a truly gorgeous open world. The team at Ubisoft Montreal really outdid themselves in this department, as I spent many, many hours clamoring up the sides of structures to the highest points of the game (Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher were two of the most daunting) just so I could gaze upon the life-like recreation of 12th century Palestine. The panoramic views are positively show-stopping, and I don’t think I have seen anything more amazing in another game to date.

In terms of creating atmosphere, however, vistas do not do the whole of the job. In the open countryside, certainly, but in urban settings, you need more than pretty buildings to make the experience immersive. Thankfully, AC delivers a dynamic world that is full of surprises. As you’re running across rooftops and jumping from medieval construction platforms, people in the streets below will comment on the state of your mental health; if you rush past someone and knock them down in the street, they will yell and sometimes even give chase to cold-clock you for being rude; people speak with believable accents, either Middle Eastern or European (though most everyone is speaking English, sadly), depending on who controls which city at that point in the timeline; town criers inform the populace of the goings-on in the city and beyond as you walk by, and the topic changes depending on what assassination you’ve most recently committed. All of this, combined with the art design, gives the world a richness that can really suck you in.

"It is not a "dress"; it's called an abaya. Infidel."

Speaking of assassinations, I should pause here to note that the designers went to great lengths to ensure a certain degree of historical accuracy with the subject matter, and not just with the maps of the countryside and the layout of the cities, either. All nine of Altair’s targets lived, and either died or disappeared, at the time this story takes place. Each time you receive a new target, the game gives you the option of pushing a button to see more intelligence on the person in question, including some actual historical information. Not enough for my liking, mind you, but then again, not everyone is an amateur history nut like myself. The fact that they included this little feature at all is quite telling in terms of what they were hoping to accomplish with this piece.

Which, unfortunately, makes the failures of Assassin’s Creed all the more prominent.

The Bad

While this game does a lot of things right, it gets many more things wrong.

Few digital games have ever gotten the whole “stealth” thing hammered out to the point of being fun to play. The Thief series, as well as many Splinter Cell titles and last year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, are the few shining examples of how stealth gameplay should go.

Notice I did not include Assassin’s Creed in that list.

There is a symbol at the upper-left-hand of your head’s up display (HUD, for short) that indicates your. . .for lack of a better term, we’ll call it ‘notoriety’. It’s pretty basic in it’s execution, as white means ‘no one gives a crap about what you’re doing’, yellow means ‘someone has taken notice of your shenanigans and you might want to tone it down a bit’, and red means ‘pick an exit strategy tout suite or risk becoming shish kabob’. By itself, it isn’t all that annoying. The things you have to do to get back into ‘anonymous’ status, however, can prove to be quite exasperating.

Once you've been "made," you need to break line of sight with your persuers so that you can hide until the heat is off. Methods of hiding run from the traditional, such as diving into piles of hay or covered rooftop gardens, to the in-plain-sight variety, by blending in with wandering groups of hooded scholars or citizens lounging on park benches. This sounds simple enough, but in reality, it can prove to be infuriatingly difficult.

See, as much as the Puppeteering System (Ubi’s name for the control scheme) can make for fun exploration, when it comes to running for your life, it leaves much to be desired. There are times that the face buttons don’t register that you’re using them, and when you’re running full-tilt in hopes of hiding in one of those aforementioned conveniently-placed piles of hay until the coast is clear, lining up your jumps isn’t exactly easy. More often than not, you wind up faceplanting onto the side of a church or into the packed-dirt alleyways below, and waiting for the game to reload so you can try again.

This is another place where the game flounders: Loading times. In the beginning, the loading times are noticeable in length, but not so much so that they can’t be shrugged off once you’re back in the thick of things. Once you get halfway to two-thirds of the way toward completing the game, however, the loading times get to be so long that I literally found myself tapping my foot in irritation when I left to get a bottle of water and a granola bar from the kitchen, checked the mail, gave each of my dogs a scritch behind the ear, and came back to find the game was still loading. Five bloody minutes or more for a loading sequence? On a next-gen console? Are you kidding me? I’ve got things to do, Ubisoft. Yeesh!

Of course, once you’re back in the game itself, some of this can be forgiven. What can’t be forgiven, really, is the combat system. I bought this game because Ubi promised that I could sneak around and shove a hidden blade into the throats of wrong-doers and slink away unnoticed; I did not sign up to engage in hack-and-slash fights where I am severely outnumbered and can’t disengage a target with any amount of ease. Hell, if these battles were truly hack-and-slash in nature, I’d be all over it like gravy on a biscuit. But these situations amount to holding down the ‘counterattack’ button for ten minutes running with little opportunity to run away. Not cool, Ubi. Not cool.

And while we’re on the subject, it should be mentioned that you can’t upgrade any of your equipment in this game. Your health meter increases as you progress through the game, as do the number and types of weapons you carry (I’m especially fond of the throwing knives, myself), but that’s about it. There are no shops where can load up on throwing knives (you have to pickpocket a certain type of NPC to get more of those), there are no health potions or poultices to heal yourself after a nasty fight (you have to wait for your meter to slowly regenerate), and the armor you start with is the armor you end with, which doesn’t say much given that it’s purely aesthetic.


Now, these gripes pale in comparison to some of the truly mind-blowingly awful things you encounter in Assassin's Creed. When I say "mind-blowingly awful" things, I don't mean in the "grotesque and thought-provoking" kind of occurrences that games like, say, BioShock, dole on an hourly basis; I'm referring to those sorts of things that make you want to scream with frustation until your throat is raw and bloody. Granted, this is purely subjective, but I know for a fact I'm not the only one who feels this way.

The assassinations themselves are fun, but the lead up is slow and arduous at the best of times. As a way of making the player understand all the planning and research that must go into a pre-meditated, politically-motivated murder, it accomplishes this goal quite nicely. The player has to pull off at least two out of four "investigations" before the assassination assignment will unlock. To gather information, you can eavesdrop, pick someone's pocket, beat intel out of an informant, and talk to fellow Brotherhood members throughout the city for help. The eavesdropping and pickpocketing are actually kind of neat, since stealth is what this game is supposed to be about, and the "interrogations" are pretty standard beat-em-up fare, which brings a nice change of pace when you get tired of running from guards all day. The things you have to do get information from your informants, though, definitely rank high on the "what were they thinking" scale.

Most of the time, you have to engage in a footrace, gather flags that have been "dropped" throughout the city, or eliminate some thugs that are out for your stool pigeon's blood, all without being "detected". These missions are timed, and given the control scheme issues outlined previously, you might have to try a dozen times just to get one piece of intel that could prove valuable. . .or could prove to be completely worthless. Maddening is the most accurate word that comes to mind to describe these missions, and eventually, most players will wind up skipping them altogether in favor of the other three investigations. This is a shame, as some of the informants dole out drips and drabs of conversation that give you an insight to Altair's past, but those aren't worth the level of effort you're forced to exert.

As to more things that aren't worth the effort, remember I mentioned the beautiful open world you get to play in? It has a major flaw: There is hardly a bloody, blessed thing to do while you're in it. Each city and the Kingdom (which is the designers' name for all that is depicted on your map) have a set of flags that you can collect while you're running around. . .and that's it. There are Viewpoints to scale, as well, but after the first few tries end in you getting skewered by the blade-happy AI, you just give up caring about those parts of the map and ignore them altogether.

The AI system, which is what controls your non-playable characters or NPCs, is so bad at times it makes you want to fling your controller into the screen. Sometimes, you can walk right up to a guard on a rooftop and stab him in the face before he even finishes telling you that you shouldn't be up there. Conversely, there are times when you'll have scouted out the area and found only one guard standing between you and where you want to be, and start scaling the side of a tower on the opposite side from where he's standing, and he manages to see you anyway. Then he calls his stupid guard buddies to his aid and you fall to the ground below because he broke your concentration by throwing a rock at you.

Really? A badass assassin, brought down by a piece of broken masonry?

As to that 'badass' label, methinks it was prematurely given to our pal Altair, and I say this for one reason: He can't swim.

And now we know why Alti always froze when he was dared to use the high dive board.

No, you read that right. He was trained from birth to stab first and ask questions later, yet, he falls into a canal and he's done for. I don't think I have to tell you how much of a buzz kill that can be, as there is much more water in the arid Holy Land than one is led to believe by school books.

Speaking of our intrepid hero, he's actually not that great a guy. Yes, he fights to right wrongs and all that malarkey, but when you first meet Altair ibn La-Ahad, he's coming off a collossal screwup of his own making that leaves a target alive and one of the Brotherhood dead, yet, he's not the least bit sorry . Nor does he seem to learn from this mistake in a meaningful way during the 10-15 (or so) hours you spend in his boots. I understand the concept of an anti-hero, but The Son of No One (as his name roughly translates to) sort of falls short of that category, too. This leaves the protagonist in a sort of character limbo, giving no clear picture as to whether we should love him or hate him, which in turn leaves the player feeling rather unfulfilled, story-wise.

Going back to gameplay, there are two methods for travel in this world, the shoe-leather express, or a horse. One would think riding a horse would make things easier, but to be perfectly honest, I avoided these beautifully-rendered beasts at all costs. See, the hair-trigger AI ruins yet another potentially-satisfying aspect of the game by hunting you down if you so much as canter, much less gallop. The only option to avoid detection is to walk your horse at a snail's pace, and in that case, why the hell bother?

Then there's the NPCs. Most of them don't do anything more than get in the way when you're running from the authorities, but the lepers and beggar women really work your last nerve. During one mission, outside of a Templar-run Medieval hospital, I was trying to sneak past the guards to reach the area below a broken window, and got pushed into a 4.5 minute chase by a leper who wouldn't leave me be. You get too close to one of these guys, and they push and punch you relentlessly, until you can't take it anymore and you haul off and punch them. This is frowned upon by the city's military, apparently, as this sometimes sets them off. The next thing you know, you're a kilometer away from where you started, and have to sneak and jump your way back to square one.

Why then, you ask, don't you simply stab them and be done with it? Well, dear reader, the game frowns up this and punishes you for it, as the first part of the assassin's creed (see what I did there?) states you must never kill an innocent. You take out a leper or a beggar woman who won't stop whining about her lot in life or any Mahmoud, Ali, or Ada who gets in your way, and the game sends you back to a loading screen with a sound verbal reprimand.

Thanks, Mom.

Lastly, the ending is. . .well, again, I won't ruin if for you, but it truly stands up to the label on this section of the review. I'm all for leaving things open-ended if you're going to make a sequel, but there are limits. To work all that way through the game, only to find out. . .

Oops. Almost spilled it. Best to walk away before I say more.


Given that you can now grab a new copy of Assassin’s Creed for roughly $20 (or a used copy for half that price), it wouldn’t hurt your wallet overly much to give this game a try. However, unless you’re a completionist and simply MUST play every title in a series (or you're some sort of masochist, which, hey, more power to you), you could easily skip over this installment and go straight for the sequel without missing much.

Besides, if you really want to see how it ends, there's always YouTube.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Long time, no see. I won't go into too many details as to why I've been absent from the interwebz for so long, but suffice it to say that had I been able to function properly, I would never have left. However, I will give you two bits of info for you to mull over.

One, there are certain things I am not allowed to discuss due to the fact that I work for GameStop. As such, my topics for blog entries has been truncated drastically due to mandates handed down from corporate. Much as I love talking shop with all of you, I like my W4 job more. Makes the mortgage company more likely to say yes to a construction loan. So, I stayed quiet while I figured out what I was going to do about all this.

Two, breathing, as it turns out, is really, really important to staying alive. My body had apparently forgotten this particular detail, which has made the last several months rather. . .difficult. But, here I am. Did you miss me?

*pregnant pause*

Yeah, I missed you guys, too. All eight of you.

So, the holiday season is upon us. Anyone who ventured out into the dark, cold, whimsically decorated worldscape known as The Mall this past Friday, be it as consumer or worker (or sometimes both), knows this to be true. With it come the usual trappings: Gut-checking the guy racing you for the last Kinect bundle, eating too much pie, and of course, TV specials. Many a cable channel is boasting they're the place to be for "25 days of holiday cheer!"

I say, "Bah! Humbug!"

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE this time of year. No one looks at you funny for eating fried food eight days straight (thank you, Hannukah!), wearing a silly pointed hat in public is completely acceptable, and I get to shower my loved ones with love, attention, and gifts.

Honestly, that's my favorite part. Giving someone a present I spent hours choosing and wrapping perfectly, and seeing his or her eyes light up after they rip it open gives me a multitude of warm fuzzies.

If that's the case, why my Scrooge-like exclamation above, you ask?

Because as much as I love the Giftmas season, seasonal entertainment has gotten stale.

The classics, like Frosty and Rudolf and good old Jack Frost, always bring a smile to my face. Even the ones I've dubbed to be "new classics," such as the film "Jingle All the Way," The Fairly Oddparents holiday hit, "Christmas Every Day," and Danny Phantom's "The Fright Before Christmas," get me into the spirit faster than a barrel filled with eggnog-laced Captain Morgan ever could. But some of these newer attempts by networks (I'm looking at you, ABC Family) to force holiday cheer down our throats feel. . .well, forced. They use big names, be them older television stars or more recent box-office standbys, to try and grab as much attention as possible and then. . .

And then fall flat on their faces with stories that boring at best, or completely saccharine and melodramatic at worst. (Note that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I will NOT, however, note any specific examples. I'd like my eggnog-rum to remain in my belly, thank you very much.)

Television has been disappointing us for years now, though I will admit there have been some great new additions to the normal schedule of stupid frat-boy humor, primetime soap operas and medical/crime procedurals. Even so, cutting the cable was the best idea my husband and I ever had, and I don't regret it, thanks in no small part to Hulu and Netfilx. That said, rather than try to dig up old copies of holiday fare that I love, I'm avoiding my usual tradition of "A Holiday Special A Day 'Til Giftmas," altogether this year (since my soul belongs to GameStop until January 3rd, anyway) in favor of my favorite pastime: Playing video games.

That decision got me to thinking about this blog, and led to a very fascinating idea: Instead of 25 Days of Stupid Holiday TV Movies. . .how about 25 Days of Game Reviews?

It is a daunting idea, to be sure, but I feel that my sluggish brain could use a good challenge before the New Year. I won't give away what games will be reviewed here over to the next 3 weeks (as I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise!), but I can tell you, dear reader, that there will be a fair bit of variety to be found, here. First-person shooters vs. role-playing games, consoles vs. PC vs. handheld, indie vs. mainstream, disc-based vs. downloadable. I'm not shying away from anything if I can possibly help it, and help, I have garnered, in form of 3 guest bloggers who will show up sometime between now and December 25th.

Consider this my Giftmas present to the intertubes, since they have given me so much over the years.

Thank you, interwebz. For everything.

P.S.--And no, I'm NOT telling you who will be gracing us with their presence. That would spoil it.

P.P.S--Nope, still not telling.

P.P.P.S--What, are you one of those people who likes to tell kids in line at Macy's that Santa isn't real, and give away the ends to movies to the people seated in front of you at the theater as the lights go down? Shame on you!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Women in Games at E3 – Thursday, June 17

De-lurking to share some E3 2010 info with you on behalf of IGDA Women in Games. Enjoy. :)
Frag Dolls Photo Shoot of Women in Games at E3

IGDA Women in Games and Women in Games International invite you to participate in the upcoming Ubisoft photo shoot of “women in games’ E3 2010, hosted by the Frag Dolls. Scheduled for Thursday, June 17 at 9:30 am, all women in the games industry attending E3 are invited to show up at the south side of the plaza in front of South Hall, located at Pico and Figueroa. The photo shoot will only take a few moments, so be sure to show up on time!

This potentially historic photo is a reprise of the Frag Dolls invitation in 2006 to all females in the gaming industry for the first annual group photo of women at E3. Along with our partners and sponsors, we will be gathering together as many industry and gamer females as possible for this event to demonstrate the significant presence of women in gaming. Spread the word to every woman you know in games, student or professional…we want to see you there!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Free Verse: Talking 'Bout Failure, Modding, and Fan Fiction

Notes: I'm completely winging this post, as I've got to get this out of my system before I get ready for the night shift. I will get around to finishing my thoughts on The Force Unleashed, I swear. Just not this week, since Triangle Game Conference is less than two days away.

Back in February, I mentioned on Twitter the C.H.A.T. Festival, a conference hosted by the University at North Carolina. C.H.A.T. stands for "Collaboration of Humanities and Technology. " There were a lot of great talks, from games as medium all the way to the redefining the term "gamer,", but the one that sticks out the most nearly 2 months later was the panel on Games & Storytelling.

One of the gentlemen working on Splinter Cell: Conviction (and I promise I'll dig out my notes from the panel and name names later), mentioned the difficulty of shoehorning a game plot into the existing mythos of an established intellectual property. In this case, of course, he was talking about the world created by Tom Clancy. While he quipped that creating something true to the 'universe' often takes lots and lots of scotch to accomplish, he also said (in all seriousness) that it takes lots of practice.

I didn't think much of it at the time, but that quote kept rolling around in my head for weeks afterward, and I hit upon a truth that I'm not sure a lot of people have discovered: Creating fan fiction is to writing what modding is to game design.

. . . . . .

. . . . . .

Let me explain some things before the lot of you turn tail and run away screaming. I promise it will all make sense. You just have to hang in there with me.

. . . . . .

. . . . . .

Settled? Alrighty, then.

Whenever you talk to professionals at conferences about how to break into the video game business, the first thing 90% of these folks will tell you is to pick up a game engine, and start modding. Use an existing tool to create something new and original, and polish the bejeezus out of it. Then, show it to people you're networking with and hope someone thinks it deems you worthy of a shot at a games industry job. This is sound, time-tested advice, and it shouldn't be ignored. However, there is something the other 10% of professionals will say that often gets glossed over: Make games for yourself.

This advice is very valuable, though it may not seem like it until long after you've convinced someone to give you your shot at glory. (Or at least let you into the QA department to try and break every game they shove in your face until you've proven your worth.) Not everything you create is going to be a masterpiece. I doubt sincerely that Van Gogh got "Starry Night," right on the first try. Game design is no different. You have to physically try new things in order to get comfortable with the process, and with trying new things comes failure. That may sound bad, but failure is NOT a dirty word. If you think it is, then you need a little change in perspective.

Possibly kick-started by a boot to the head, but that's neither here nor there.

You learn a lot more from failure than you do from success, so feeling shame for all of your misfires and blunders is far from necessary and could be downright harmful to your creative process. (Continuously missing deadlines or breaking promises? Yeah, go ahead and hang your head for that stuff. Just not this.) Embrace failure as the learning opportunity it is, and move on. You don't have to forget them; you just have to forgive yourself for them.

Constantly, novelists, script writers and filmmakers tell us junior ink-jockeys to write for ourselves. They remind us that no one can take writing away from us, and that it costs us nothing (financially) to dive into it head-first in the privacy of our own home offices. For some of us, though, the idea of jumping into anything head-first without nose plugs and floaties scares us half to death just thinking it. Well, fan-generated fiction for popular shows and book series is great way to stick your toes into the writing waters without fear of getting swallowed by what lies in the dark depths below.

Yes, there is a LOT of really awful fan fiction out there, filled with stupid, half-assed ideas and enough Mary Sues to fill Mile High Stadium. However, there are a lot of examples of stellar writing in that community, too, so one shouldn't toss out the entire bushel for fear of a few bad apples. Writing fan fiction can help you take a shot at that notion I mentioned above, shoehorning a new story into an existing universe. If you can successfully craft a tale that fits into all the lore an intellectual property has to offer (later attempts at retroactive continuity notwithstanding), then you've got it made! You'll know for a fact you can do it on a larger scale should you get hired as a writer, and that confidence in your skills will make you much more attractive to studios shopping around for good pen monkeys.

Whether it will help you pick up hot chicks or dudes at after-parties remains to be seen. But, hey, it certainly couldn't hurt.

You will not accomplish anything if you don't try. Sure, trying something new is scary, but it can be thrilling, too. So conventional methods, such as going for a computer science degree or taking a creative writing course might not be your style; there's nothing wrong with that. If unconventional methods can get you to actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), then by all means, go for it! Sure, your first few attempts at making something solid will probably crash and burn, but that's all part of the process. Rather than berate yourself for wasting your time (which you most certainly haven't), take pride in the fact that you're willing to do what it takes to get where you want to go. Naysayers be damned.