Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Untimely Revue: Assassin's Creed

I think you should know the pattern by now. I play games well after their best-by date, then review them. Why? Because I'm a horrible person. Let's get to it *record scratch* to it t-t-t-t-to it!

The first Assassin’s Creed game I ever played was Assassin’s Creed II. From there I doubled back to the OG Assassin’s Creed. This time around, I made the same mistake, starting with Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and making that same double-back to the series’ progenitor. It was ugly. I knew going in that the original deal wasn’t going to be as polished or refined. But I didn’t think it would be this ugly. Almost all of my notes here are pretty negative, and that’s something that doesn’t happen often when I review something, be it game, book, movie, or music. 

Right off, there’s an utterly sickening gameplay intro. All those glitches and visual effects nearly blinded me, and I almost had to quit the game completely because I couldn’t last through the half-minute or so section. My eyes are a bit sensitive to weird motion stuff (looking at you, Gears of War or Mass Effect), but this was ridiculous. How did the playtesters get through having to do this over and over and over? 

And then from that truly awful gameplay intro we meet the bland milquetoast protagonist of the series, Desmond Miles. He is the literal embodiment of a piece of white bread. Not even toasted white bread, just that overly processed stuff that gas stations sell. There’s just nothing. He’s a cipher. Nothing about him to like or dislike. (Okay, I dislike his stupid tribal tattoo.) He’s just… There. Taking up space. Breathing. Moving. Whining a bit about being kidnapped or whatever. This sets up lots of backstory, but I don’t remember a word of it because it was so bloody generic. 

After that, the tutorials. Where all I can think is, “I’m so glad they improved the tutorials and made them more fun in the later games.” Seriously. This was the lamest tutorial ever. Just boring. Visually boring, aurally boring, mentally boring. Boooring. Also, the tutorials are where the glaring lack of controller support becomes apparent. After about half an hour of tinkering and curses to dark gods left forgotten, I had a somewhat workable controller layout, but it wasn’t easy at all. I’ve NEVER had to remap so many buttons.

Something that’s always bugged me about the Assassin’s Creed games is that the existence of Templars doesn’t really make sense in the later games. Sure, in Altair’s era the Templars were a major political force. But by the time Ezio rolls around, the Templars had long been hunted down and burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church and other groups. For Ezio, Edward, and the other later Asssassins, the Templar-parallel would be the Freemasons or the Illuminati (This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, the Illuminati was a real thing in Renaissance times.) Why not just have the “face” of the organization change, but the powers behind it stay the same? So they shed their Templar skin and become Illuminati and later Freemasons. It would make a lot more sense historically. Not that the Assassin’s Creed games care a lot about historical accuracy, but it would make people like me happy. 

Speaking of historical accuracy, these Assassins feel like Hashashins. They were a political party of roughly the time that Assassin’s Creed takes place, known for political assassinations and being kind of radical (not in the good way.) Additionally, they were often said to smoke hashish before being sent out to kill with no regard for their own safety. Kind of brainwashed, just as we see the Assassins are with their leaps of faith. And while I was looking for flags in Masyaf, I found “proof.” The whole back garden area is filled with women in gauzy clothes, which fits perfectly with how the Hashashins were said to brainwash their mooks. That’s the kind of historical touch I love.

What I don’t love, though, is flags. There are too bloody many flags. Right here is the root of one of the series’ biggest problems. Too many collectibles. At least the Templar hunts make sense. The flag hunts make no sense whatsoever and offer no rewards. They’ve taken some steps to fix that in the later games (Black Flag’s Animus shards unlocked cheat codes, I believe), but it’s still interesting to see that they thought people would be willing to look for bloody flags everywhere with the scant reward of an achievement to show for it. 

I have to say that I really love how personal these assassinations feel. All the preparation that goes into them makes me feel much more invested. For some reason, I never really felt all that interested in who I was killing in Assassin’s Creed II or Black Flag. But the preparation itself was…a pain. The Assassin informants seem like incompetents using me to cover their butts, which makes me wonder just how the Assassins stayed relevant for so long. The tasks the informants set are incredibly repetitive, and not the good kind of repetitive where you’re doing something fun. No, this is just kind of tedious. 

Similarly tedious is Altair himself. He’s a very unlikeable character, who just seems angry and arrogant for the sake of being angry and arrogant. Contrast him to, say, Edward Kenway, who is also angry and arrogant and selfish, but has actual plot-driven reasons to be that way. We don’t see any reason for Altair to be such a d-bag. 

Nor do we really see any reasons to truly hate the Templars. Other than the first person you assassinate, the Templars, as a whole, seem more misguided than evil. Yes, their methods are rather ugly, but their goal seems pretty legit. I don’t personally agree with it, but it’s a noble sort of goal. And it’s not like the Assassins haven’t killed lots of innocents. By the time I was through, whole armies of soldiers and guards had bit the Holy Land’s dust. I felt kind of bad for all the Templars and soldiers I killed. 

But I didn’t feel bad when I killed beggars. You know you’ve done something wrong with your game when I’m intentionally doing something you punish me for because I hate a character so much. I’ve killed every beggar in every city. That’s how much I hate beggars and their whiny voices. They’re awful, awful, awful. If you ever want to provoke me into a frothing rage, just say, “My family’s sick and dying” in a whiny voice. Then run, because I WILL try to hurt you. I can’t stand those stupid Cockney accents or how they would chase me, or that they couldn’t TAKE A HINT. Similarly, screw the mentally-disabled people in this game. (THERE’S a quote for you to take out of context!) They’re surrounded by hundreds of other civilians, and I’m the one they choose to shove and laugh at? What did I ever do to them? 

At least the beggars die in a few hits. The combat in this game is incredibly tedious compared to the later games. Mainly, it consists of holding the deflect button and hitting the correct counter button when necessary. Actually attacking seemed to be discourage. Contrast that with Black Flag (I like contrasting with Black Flag), where combat actually felt balanced and fun. This felt like Dark Souls but without the precise control. 

Precise control… I do appreciate the different action levels. Though it never felt like they were properly implemented, and it was almost always easier just to run on rooftops and chase your target really openly rather than try to be stealthy. On that note, why, exactly, do enemies assume I’m an Assassin if I’m running/galloping? Does no one ever hurry in this world?

I began this essay talking about Desmond. I would like to end by also talking about Desmond. Namely, how his segments are used as a sort of framing narrative for Altair’s story. Usually, framing devices are meant to add something to the story. Desmond adds absolutely nothing. In fact, the whole modern section, just like the modern sections of every other Assassin’s Creed game, detracts from the value of the Crusades (or whatever other time period) story. Similarly, having their sci-fi element in the Pieces of Eden makes the whole story less coherent. I wouldn’t have minded just having the Assassins and Templars locked in a purely physical/political/philosophical power struggle, rather than throwing in bits of magic and science fiction and other donkey droppings. It would be a much more coherent and relatable story overall. Besides, the whole “OMG aliens came before humans” bit has been done. Halo did it first, and so did ten trillion other science fiction novels, comics, and movies. Just make a nice story about a political struggle between two political ideals stretching over centuries. 

Anyway. I enjoyed this. Barely. It’s deeply, deeply flawed, and far less fun than some of the later entries. Luckily, the Assassin’s Creed games are relatively stand-alone, so if you haven’t played this, you aren’t missing much.