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.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Many of you may know that I am friends with Josh Loomis, our friendly neighborhood alchemist. What you may not know is that he's the creative mind behind the movie review series "IT CAME FROM NETFLIX."

Here's a crash course in what IT CAME FROM NETFLIX (ICFN, for short) is all about. Like many of us, Mr. Loomis can't always afford the time or duckets for a trip to the local cinema. Also like many of us, he relies on the ever-handy service known as Netflix to help him fill his downtime with something other than contemplations concerning his belly button.* What makes him stand out from the herd, though, is his ability to review selections from their catalog with humor, intelligence, and more than a little sarcasm.

Whether he's ripping apart a movie most people find popular or praising a film most of us have never even heard of, Josh never fails to entertain and enlighten his readers (and listeners, as there is now a corresponding audio supplement for every review) concerning the joys and pitfalls of film making, script writing, and movie watching. He also never misses an opportunity to make us all dig just a little bit deeper into the given subject matter to behold (and hopefully better understand) what lies beneath the surface rather than settling to simply take it at face value.

As such, I have become a regular consumer of his movie reviews, and when an opportunity came along to support his website and ICFN (and by extension, the writer himself), I jumped at it. Not long ago, Josh started taking review requests for specific films and television shows, and also made it known that monetary contributions were welcome. Without much delay, I plunked down my hard-won GameStop earnings for the chance to see Josh rip into one of the most awful films I've watched in long, long time: Jumper.

Ladies and gents, I make minimum wage at aforementioned job, and I had to work 3.5 hours just to pay for that review. The verdict? It was money very well spent. I highly recommend you go read and/or listen to his catalog of reviews, because if you're going to spend time idly clicking around the internet, you might as well spend it on something more worthwhile than LOLcats and Avatar porn.

If you have some spare change, or just a movie you'd like reviewed, I'd shoot Mr. Loomis an email. I promise you won't regret it.

Oh, and click through some of the ads on his site for good measure. We writers/reviewers/artists/imbeciles/ne'er-do-wells can't continue to deliver the goods if we starve. Just sayin'.

*If you understood that reference and where it came from, you officially rock my socks.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Open Thread: Game Recommendations

For some reason, I completely forgot to mention that I now work as a counter jockey at my local GameStop. The pay is crap, and the hours are scarce, but my managers are great, and it's a W4 job that looks good to mortgage companies.

Plus, it keeps me out of trouble.

Well, mostly.

The gig has more going for it than that, really. Besides a discount on GameStop purchases and discounts at partner stores (free refills all day long at Chick-fil-A? 30% merchandise at Barnes & Noble?? Sign me up!), there are a few hidden perks. The most noteworthy of these perks is the Employee Game Checkout program. I can check out any game in the store for free, for a period of 4 days.



Let me repeat that for those of you sitting in the back of the class: ANY game in the store. 4 days at a time. NO COST to me.

Needless to say (but I'm going to anyway), this is huge! I was lamenting the fact I couldn't afford to perform due diligence on cross-platform games, due to the cost, and BAM! A solution presents itself. I can now try out the PlayStation and Xbox versions of most any game, as long as my store has it in stock. I can finally be a more well-rounded gamer! WOOHOO!

However, I now face a new dilemma. I have no idea what the fuzzy should I be playing.

I've already checked out Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, but the jury is still out as to how I feel about it. Having only made it to Mission 2, I don't feel I've given it a fair shake. Snagged a copy of Rainbow Six: Vegas, too, but life has gotten in the way of my actually trying it out, and it's due back at the store by the end of today. (According to Raptr, John tried it while I was at work the other night. He wasn't impressed. There was rage-quitting involved. . .and there's a new hole in the bedroom wall. You do the math. )

Then, my Thought Hamsters got my attention. That is to say, I took a Clue-by-Four to the temple. "You have a blog," their placards read. "Why not ask the readers, genius?"

While their methods. . .leave something to be desired at times, the rodents are right. I'm not writing these posts for my health. (Okay, perhaps for my mental health, but I'm pretty sure I am too far gone for the exercise to be all that effective.) I open the floor to you: What do you guys and gals suggest I play?


P.S.--To clarify, we don't carry used PC games, so PC-only games are out of the running. Sorry, folks.

P.P.S.--Also, I don't own a Wii. Because I'm lame, obviously.

Friday, March 5, 2010

First Impressions, Part 2--Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

I confess, it wasn't my intention to come off as an overbearing shrew in my last post on this topic. Once I got started, though, all the pent-up disappointment in regard to what has happened to the Star Wars universe boiled over, and I got a little carried away. This does not mean I retract my previous statements on this game. I'm simply saying that I probably could have handled things better. But, too late now! The tone's been set, and far be it from me to pull punches when I was the one who started the fight.

Also, I neglected to throw out my standard Your Mileage May Vary disclaimer. Yes, I still think people who say this game is brilliant should have their heads examined, but that's just my opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own, and has the right to completely disregard mine.

One more thing of note before we dive back in. You may have noticed I struck through the "First" in the title of this and the previous post on The Force Unleashed. This whole. . .thing in regard to the game has become something bordering on obsession, so "first impressions," just didn't really fit anymore. "Review" also didn't really fit, as I've made it personal policy not to review games I haven't actually finished playing. (Given a lot of the stuff in my play pile, this policy may change, but that's a horse of a different color.) So, plain old "impressions," will have to do.

Old Business: More on Menus and Controls

Leveling Woes

Something I failed to mention previously was character and skill leveling. Such things are borrowed from role-playing games, and while RPGs are my second-favorite genre of console game, I admit the leveling and inventory systems utilized by some are very confusing to me. Sometimes I'm just too tired to give a damn, but most of the time it is a symptom of a problem I come across a lot as a game tester: Information Strain.

Try to cram too much information in too little space, the player will strain to retain it all, his eyes will glaze over, and he'll decide to do something less complicated, like re-read War and Peace. Fail to provide enough information, the player strains to grasp what the hell you want from him, and he'll curse you to the previously undiscovered 10th ring of Hell because the 9th ring is too good for the likes of you. In my opinion, SW: TFU suffers from the latter.

Perhaps I'm totally inept 1, but the little bit of info they provided for each Force ability was easily forgotten by the time I closed the sub-menu. Choosing what I wanted to spend my hard-won experience points on was about as easy as a man choosing the right breast pump for the mother of his children with no relevant data handy. And while we're on the subject of experience, you gain XP in two ways, primarily via natural game progression, but also by picking up magical McGuffins Holocrons filled with Force points. You then spend those points on abilities that fall into three categories. . .whose titles currently escape me. (Note to self: Find out which dog chewed up my notebook. I'm looking at you, Oddball 2.)

Having more than one way to gain XP is good. . .except when these McGuffins are in impossible-to-reach places, and the Force doesn't affect them. That's right: Someone took the "hologram" part of "holocron" very seriously. Unlike in BioShock, where you can fetch unreachable objects via telekinesis, you must physically touch these things in order to reap the rewards. Granted, you don't have to collect these little do-dads in order to progress, but they are more than a wee bit useful if you can knab them.

Please understand, I'm not against jumping puzzles as a concept. Half-Life 2, for example, has amazing jumping puzzles. Using this mechanic in your game is fine and dandy, unless you manage to design these jumping puzzles very badly. Oh, and force us to accomplish amazing acrobatic feats with an uncooperative camera and sluggish controls. If this is the case, instead of rabidly consuming your game and begging for more, I will round up a legion of pissed off gamers ready to tar and feather you for your act of game design hubris. Simply put, I think this particular issue was a missed opportunity to give players more ways to play around with the Force powers available to them.

Not-Quite Mortal Combat

The hack-and-slash part of the combat works just fine. If the targeting worked better (or I could find a way to de-select Auto Target), I would go so far as to call it "adequate." I contend, however, that the Combo List that goes with many of the lightsaber-related abilities is just plain unhelpful. Honestly, I hate combo lists in general. If I wanted to spend my time memorizing complicated sequences of button presses, I'd play Soul Calibur or Street Fighter, thank you very much. To my own credit, I did try to learn all the combos available to me once I unlocked new abilities, but after a while I wound up doing what I always do in these situations: Mashing the hell out of the Square or Triangle button until no enemies remained. Boring, sure, but somewhat effective.

Some of you are probably saying, "Well, you could have just looked up the combos mid-battle via the menu screen." First of all, didn't we just have a short conversation on breaking the flow of gameplay? Secondly, you're right, and I probably would have done just that had the menu screen not required long loading times just to open and close the damn thing. No, you read that right. A next-gen game's menu screen required a loading sequence. Really, LucasArts? REALLY?

I might be overreacting, but if the designers themselves had not confessed to essentially dumbing things down for people who are unfamiliar with or just plain suck at action-oriented video games, I would be far less upset. Okay, "dumbing down" is a harsh term to use, but good grief. There is a difference between "making things accessible," and "trying to please everyone." You wanted to make this game the virtual version of approachable to garner more players (and by extension, make more money.) Instead, you wound up pleasing next to no one with crappy mechanics and bad controls. Great job breaking it, dumbass.

And don't even get me started on the story. OYE!

Wow, got long-winded again. Cutting it off here to save your scrolling finger. Stay tuned for Part 3: The Rest of the Story!

1--Not likely, but I'm willing to concede I am far from perfect.
--Though, to be fair, Max isn't exactly above suspicion.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Transfer Update

I've got writing to do, so I promise to make this quick so I can get the next bit of entertainment in the pipeline and out into the intertubes very soon.

WordPress is. . .a very different animal than those I've worked with previously. He's a might bit secretive in how to bring out his best assets, and more than a little stubborn when it comes to taking direction. We're making progress, though. The going is slow, but progress is progress.

Until I get all the kinks worked out (or at the very least, we come to some sort of compromise, this new partner and I), I'm going to continue making updates here at Blogger.

That said, away we go!

Friday, February 26, 2010

This Will All End in Tears

Goodness, I certainly hope not.

My weekly blog post will be a might bit late this time around, my friends. Reason being, I'm SICK TO DEATH of Blogger's shenanigans. There's a huge long list of problems, but the inability to reply to comments for no apparent reason this morning was the last damn straw.

So, we're taking this party to WordPress. For the next month or so, I will post notices here about updates at the webpage. However, if you don't already follow me on Twitter, you may wish to remedy that soon, as that's the first place I announce new blog updates.

On a related note, I have never used WordPress in my life. Needless to say, from what little I know about it already from research, it has a lot more buttons and functions than I'm used to. I beg your collective pardon, my dear readers, for all the inevitable mistakes I will make as I navigate this new publishing tool.

As always, thank you for reading, and my apologies for the inconvenience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions, Part 1: Star Wars, The Force Unleashed

Who wouldn't be distracted by that? Doesn't it look like fun?

For the last 10 days, I have been struggling to write my review for The Saboteur. Short version, I greatly enjoyed it, faults and all. So you might be asking why it is so damn difficult to write that in essay form, genius, if you like it so much?

Believe me, dear readers, I've been asking myself that same question for more than a week. Was it the distraction of attending the UNC C.H.A.T. Festival? Was it all the time that preparing for a new job entails? I couldn't put my finger on it, though, until last night: I've got Star Wars The Forced Unleashed on the brain.

During the d'Adesky Q4 Game Consumption Frenzy of 2009, I grabbed a copy of this game for a few reasons. One, I really like the Star Wars universe. Two, the idea of occasionally playing as "the bad guy," is intriguing. Lastly, I read somewhere this particular game won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Video Game Writing.

Um, was everyone who liked The Force Unleashed playing the same game I am? Or did someone at GameStop decide to swap the game disc for a parody of the game and I'm just being punk'd? Regardless of the answer, I think all of those fans are insane, because this game is just bloody awful.

First Things First: Controls, Menus, and Other Management Stuff

For those of you who didn't play the demo, Force Unleashed is basically a hack-and-slash game with magic Force-wielding elements added for some extra fun. This is one of the few things about the game that I enjoyed, but is definitely far from perfect. Being able to wield lightning, infuse my sword lightsaber with electricity, or knock enemies away with a Force push is hugely satisfying. Force Grip, on the other hand, isn't nearly as much fun as it could have been because of the way they mapped the controls.

The problem is rather than keep things simple, someone on the design team thought it would be great to map one analog stick for horizontal movement and the other stick for vertical movement. This means in order to throw a Stormtrooper off a bridge or throw a truck-sized boulder into a sniper's nest, I have to first hold the R2 button, then navigate the object I'm holding with both hands and let 'er rip, all before my Force meter bleeds dry.

Oh, did I mention you get a finite amount of Force energy in the game? It works like a mana bar, essentially, and depending on what you're trying to do, that meter runs out FAST. Yes, it regenerates, but unless you squeeze a boatload of Force Points in a certain stat slot, that regeneration can be painfully slow.

This also means that if I use a Force-heavy power, such as Force Burst (which knocks back all the enemies in your immediate vicinity) I'm out of juice for several agonizing seconds. In the middle of a fight, this is very, very bad, as the only edge you have on most of the enemies in the game is your ability to use the Force.

Another thing of note about the controls is the targeting. Oh, good grief, the targeting. Sometimes, the best way to deal with a bogey is from distance, either because he's in an unreachable spot (like aforementioned sniper's nest) or because he's big and bad and if he gets too close, he'll squish you into a paste fit only for feeding his pet bantha. This means Force Gripping a heavy object and flinging it at him. As battlefields are rarely static, in the time it takes you to line up the shot, more enemies will close on your position, the autotarget will engage before you even realize it and you let loose your carefully prepared attack on the wrong damn guy.

As if that wasn't bad enough, if you're trying to use the Force to move an object to create a makeshift bridge or something, you have to be at a very precise angle to target said object in the first place, making things very frustrating. This results in more than a few accidental deaths and a flood of profanity.

That, oddly enough, brings me to another point: The File Save System. Very few games, in my opinion, strike the right balance between autosaves and manual saves. Some rely strictly on an autosave function, so you're at the mercy of checkpoints, while others don't autosave nearly often enough. In those situations, you'd better save after every single frakking confrontation, cut scene, and dialogue exchange, or you will be SCREWED when it comes time to reload after a boneheaded mistake.

At first, The Force Unleashed seems to have a workable (if not overly fantastic) balance between the two, by autosaving at pre-determined checkpoints but still allowing you the option to manually save in the menu screen. That seems to be the case, anyway, until you try saving in between those checkpoints and then hit 'resume' after that first trip into a lava flow.

Even if you choose to go back to the main menu to reload instead of choosing 'resume, it puts you right back at your last checkpoint, like you'd never even bothered to save the game in the first place. Here's a tip for game developers: DO NOT GIVE ME THE OPTION TO SAVE MY GAME IF YOU ARE GOING TO IGNORE IT. Why include it at all if you're just going to reload a checkpoint instead? LucasArts, did you guys originally plan to let players manually save their games, but pulled it at the last moment and simply forgot to erase that option from the menu screen? If so, SLOPPY. If not, SCREW YOU.


While discussing this game with my buddy Sam yesterday, number three on my list of biggest pet peeves in video games came up: The Quick-Time Event. For those of you new to video games, the Quick-Time Event (QTE for short) is a game mechanic that allows a developer to include pre-rendered cinematic sequences in a game while allowing the player to maintain a monicum of control over what's happening through on-screen button prompts. The most noteworthy examples of good QTE utilization are Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and the God of War franchise. Those sequences were so well done that nearly every other instance of the mechanic pales by comparison. That may be setting the bar unfairly high. . .actually, no. No it isn't. You know why?

It isn't an unfair standard because those were games from the last console generation. You cannot convince me that game design cannot improve or at least maintain that level of functionality now that we're midway through the latest hardware cycle. If this is supposed to be "the new revolution in game design," then how can you settle for being outdone by games that were developed for (supposedly) inferior hardware?

Anyway. . .

Why is the inclusion QTEs important to this discussion, you may ask. Well, I'll tell you. When it comes to hack-and-slash games, there is no good reason I should have to resort to a sequence of button presses to take down a monster. Now, while the game does allow you to kill a boss-level character the old fashioned way, the likelihood of you surviving long enough to deliver the killing blow in this game is slim at best, mostly due to sluggish response time from the controls. As such, you're practically required to rely on the quick-time events in order to finish a battle and move on to the next level. To paraphrase a reviewer I admire, "this feels more like a battle of fucking attrition than meaningful gameplay."

To put it less than eloquently, that sort of thing drives me apeshit bananas. I'm a professional game tester, for the love of cute fuzzy puppies. I'm not saying that I'm the best there is, but if I get paid to play games, you better believe that I'm not your average controller jockey. This should NOT be that damn hard for me since I do it almost EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Granted, after a long day at work, my reaction time is slower than it would be were I well-rested and pumped full of caffeine, but riddle me this, Gilligan: If the professional in the room is having trouble getting through your game, how do you think Jane Q. Gamer is going to fare? Food for thought.

Originally, this was going to be a single post on my first impressions of the game. Seeing how long this post has become, though, I'm going to be nice and divide this rant in half. Stay tuned for Part 2!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Gamus Interuptus, or "What's With All the Cut Scenes?"

**SPOILER WARNING: I talk about several recent game releases in the latter half of this post, so if you've not played Uncharted 2, the Modern Warfare games, or the God of War series, (but plan to eventually) you'll want to avoid the area between the asterisks.

I just don't understand why people have such a problem with cut scenes in video games.

The advent of the cut scene (or "game cinematic" as it is commonly called these days) was huge way back when. The ability to see your favorite video game characters fleshed out in a well-defined way, as opposed to those heavily pixelated renderings offered to us in-game, was nothing short of mind-blowing. Even before sound effects and voice overs were prevalent, these cinematics offered an additional way to relay story elements to the player and to drive the story along.

These days, the argument has been made that cut scenes are no longer needed. Some say these cinematics are the hallmark of the last console generation (or three) and they should be abandoned so that game design can evolve further. "They break the flow of the gameplay," some cry. "They take scenes that would be fun to play through and relegates the player to the backseat," shout others.

Me? I think people are looking at this issue from the wrong angle.

Look. Games are not the only place where "flow" is broken for any number of reasons. Every time I'm forced to put down a novel I'm reading to take a phone call or go to sleep, the flow of the story is broken. Every time I have to pause a movie or TV show on DVD to tend to a pot of pasta boiling over or let the dog out, the flow is broken. Every time I'm about to hand someone their ass in a game of Clue, and someone accidentally spills a glass of Dr. Pepper across the table. . .well, you get the idea.

Video games are no different. Every time you pause a game to visit the little space marine's room or grab another can of Red Bull, you're breaking the flow of gameplay. Why should cut scenes get all the blame? (Boring, repetitive, or ridiculous game mechanics, on the other hand, should get more flak, but that's another rant for another time.)

I LOVE cut scenes. Want to know why?

I may be showing my age, here, but I love cut scenes because my hands get tired and having a reason to let go of the controller or mouse (BioWare games not withstanding, obviously) for a moment or two without having to stop the game is a HUGE comfort to me.

What? Your hands have never gotten tired while playing a game? I'll believe that when I see a porcupine book a first-class flight on Jet Blue.

The main reason I love game cinematics, though, is that some parts of a story are best told through images and sound alone. Just as in theatre there are some stories best conveyed through music and lyric,and some stories that should stay away from the Broadway musical format like a diabetic should avoid the Hershey factory, (I'm looking at you, Titanic and Saturday Night Fever), some things are best experienced when watched instead of played.


There's a moment toward the conclusion of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where the survival of a much-beloved character is in question at the end of a particular battle. The protagonist is shaking her frantically, screaming her name, urging her to wake the hell up. . .and the screen fades to black, without giving you any clue whatsoever whether that character lived or died.

At the beginning of the next scene, our plucky hero is standing in front of a shrine with a trinket in his hand, looking pensive and chatting quietly with a friend. The fate of the missing character is still hanging there, like a shroud. The moments tick by, much is said, and still no mention of the missing party member. He places the medallion on the shrine, quietly says his farewell, and continues talking to the person standing next to him.

The seconds tick by, and you begin to fear the worst. This determined young woman whom you've become quite attached to throughout the telling of this grand adventure may be gone forever. Just as you start to rage and sob and scream in disbelief, there's the sound of an argument out of frame. Our hero turns around. . .lo and behold, there's our girl, battered and bleeding, but alive, and refusing to be coddled just because she took shrapnel from a grenade at extremely short range.

And the player lets out the breath she didn't know she was holding.


I once asked David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, why he took camera control away from the player. His answer? "We wanted to keep the pacing steady, and the best way to do that was to control where the player's eyes roamed when he entered a new area. I didn't want that frantic adrenaline rush we were building to be broken by giving the player the ability to look in every nook and cranny in a room."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. As much as I hate, hate, HATE (did I mention 'hate'?) fixed cameras in games, I understood what Jaffe was going for with that decision. In other interviews, he's stated that he wanted the players to feel some of the rage and frustration Kratos was experiencing. As a storytelling device, lack of camera control definitely got the job done in that regard, because I have never, EVER screamed in absolute rage while playing a game the way I did while playing God of War.


By contrast, sometimes giving the player limited control during a scene is much more evocative than wresting control from her entirely. Two-thirds of the way through the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, you and your British SAS counterpart are betrayed by the general in charge of your operation. He offers you his hand in congratulations, and instead of a handshake, you get a high-caliber bullet at point-blank range.

You hit the ground, eyes still seeing, your vision slightly blurry. In disbelief, the player starts frantically pushing buttons, desperately hoping that there's something that can be done. The general's goons pick you up, and toss you into a hole in the ground you didn't notice before.

Then you see the cans of gasoline.

Again, the player starts slamming buttons and pulling triggers, even though you know all you can do is move your head a little bit to look into the face of the monster who is ordering his people to douse you and your teammates in flammable liquid. The same man who recruited you for this operation, the man who assured you that your work would save thousands of lives, sets your body ablaze after lighting up (yet another) cigar.

And all you can do is move your head around a bit, desperately seeking the help that will never, ever come.

Unlike that scenario in Uncharted 2 I mentioned, I all but sobbed during this scene, because I felt completely and utterly helpless. Having just that little bit of control during that sequence was enough to convey to me the hopelessness of the situation. The only way they could have driven the point home further is if the controller had the ability to heat up.


There are many ways to tell a story. No one method is necessarily better than the other, and no single method works 100% of the time. The major problem is that some franchises use cinematics as a crutch to support lackluster story and/or gameplay. (I don't really have to mentoin Metal Gear Solid 4, do I?) Just because cut scenes get overused, though, doesn't mean that cut scenes are inherently bad. The goal shouldn't be to eliminate this storytelling technique altogether; we should, instead, strive to achieve better balance between gameplay and cinematics.