Saturday, 6 April 2013

Assassain's Creed 3 - Less knives then forks

While Playing AC3 I got the distinct impression that the developers are fed up with it. It seems they would have preferred to do ANYTHING, rather then another game in this series. I say this because preforming actual assassinations was a rare game-play element next to hundreds of activities that ranged from manufacturing goods to ship combat. I spent more time selling beaver teeth knives then murdering people for vague political goals. But while the gameplay suffered from this "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, it was the treatment of the story that really depresses me.

Sins of the Father
AC3 has all the right cards, thematically speaking. The earth is on the verge of a cyclical catastrophe and Desmond must venture (again) into the past of his ancestors, seeking the final key to the salvation of mankind. Desmond must work with his domineering father, solving the riddles of a precursor civilization, while playing the role of a native American called Connor, caught in the colonial revolutionary war. Connor himself must also face his father who now leads the Templar faction while working under a mentor father figure.
It's a three layer theme cake: Desmond vs father, humans vs first civilization, colonist vs British and Connor vs father. It's all there. And AC3 doesn't do ANYTHING with it.
Instead we are treated to the usual underdeveloped personal conflict motivations I have come to expect from the series. Conor is after "revenge!", what else. And his involvement in the revolutionary war seems flimsy even at the best of times. The game establishes that he hides his Indian identity to circumvent racism by impersonating a person of Spanish or Italian decent. Except that every character seems to see through this rouse effortlessly. Even random guardsmen shout "Halfbreed" at you. So that whole racism angle flounders as Connor isn't hindered by prejudice. A similar mess is felt when Connor swings from defending the colonists he is aiding to condemning their hypocrisy regarding slavery. One moment he risks everything to protect George Washington, only to rile against him a mission later. This bi-polar behavior really robs Connor of any sympathy I might have felt for his plight. One minute he berates his fellow conspirators with cynic eyes, only to defend their ideals with embarrassing naivete half an hour later.
Things outside the animus don't fare much better. Desmond is still a pretty bland character despite the tragic back-story injections he seem to have been receiving. He killed the person he had the most interaction with, two games ago and now that we have time to dwell on it, the plot decides it is not really all that important. No, now his real conflict is with his father, a character introduced at the last few minutes of the previous game. He ventures out on missions of his own, and faces an arch-enemy I never knew he had two times before killing him unceremoniously. His conversations with others reveals that they had more involved relationships with his father, each other and his arch-nemesis then he himself. All this time Juno, a first civilization figure appears to the cast and even starts sending them e-mails. She goads them to hurry while insulting and antagonizing Desmond and the rest. She does all this just to foreshadow the revelation that she is EVIL!
It's so frustrating, because the seeds of good storytelling are there. Unfortunately the game seems obsessed with throwing these seeds around and forgetting about them only to really focus on a character or element that had very little spotlight so far. And then act as if these minor bits were the focus all along.

The Eye of Heaven
Another clue to the reluctance of the development team towards the game is its slow start. And it is a very slow start. You spend ten minutes introduction as Desmond. then at least two hours as Connor's father, then another three hours as Connor during his childhood. All the while you are basically playing a glorified tutorial. Because you can hunt, and sail and ride and sell and buy and lay traps and take aim and play "hide and seek" and climb trees and do a hundred other things not connected in any way to assassination. You'll find the bulk of the gameplay focused on growing a small community which manufactures goods you can sell. It's another one of those activities that demands a lot of attention for very small value. Even without trying I amassed a small fortune with which I had very little to do. I could buy new weapons but quickly found one or two that served me well enough. I could manufacture goods to sell, but what was the point? I could upgrade my ship, but naval battles are optional and only reward you with more avenues to sell stuff. It's a very weak and ill designed economic model to base a whole game around. And I was frankly surprised how far I had to advance in the story for elementary equipment upgrades to unlock. Since you can only manufacture them if you have grown your community large enough. And you can grow the community only through optional missions that open based on your advances in the main story. And so I had to wait for the last act before I could carry more then eight bullets at a time or carry two guns.
These side missions themselves are arguably the highlights of the whole game, since the characters composing this community enjoy the most steady interactions with Connor. Helping a local couple with the rigors of childbirth or helping a young man woe a a young huntress, seem to bring out the best in Connor's character. He still seems a bit autistic in his interactions, but at least he doesn't comes off as bi-polar as he does while interacting with the revolutionaries.
The game really shines when it examines the hypocrisy of the revolutionaries towards slavery and the native Americans. The game touches upon this point several times and each highlights the problem well. The colonists talk frequently about "freedom" and "equality" but these moments reminds you that these lofty concepts will be denied from non-whites, even used to enslave them. It is a shame that the game does not do more to dwell on this issue, since it seems it is the one issue it knows how to tell a story about.

Thus always to Tyrants
Everything that made the previous games in the series fun, is still there somewhere. But it's buried under layers of uncomplimentary gameplay elements. The ability to traverse tree branches is well implemented but the colonial cities are just not as fun to traverse as the high towered Italian cities from previous games. NPCs become even less useful or distinctive as it seems that only guards contribute to gameplay in any meaningful way. You can still try to sneak around to achieve your objectives, but the lack of vision cone indicators and the fast escalation of alerts make such approach very challenging. The combat on the other hand works well in that you will triumph easily over small numbers of enemies but large groups will be a hassle. Either way you will find yourself relaying on parrying through most encounters.
The game is littered with collectables, that frankly offer the only reason to explore the world. But the prizes they offer aren't worth the hassle. And once they are gone, traversing the outdoors area of the game becomes a chore.
The supporting cast is weakly characterized, relaying on your familiarity with American history. While this flashes out some of the secondary characters, it does leave the few genuinely interesting original characters (Achilles for example) with little screen time.
In conclusion, AC3 is a game that seems to have lost its way somewhere. It lacks focus, trying to tackle several issues at once and falling short on all fronts. I spent more time selling knives then using them. And most of all the story just suffers from weak characters with weak motivation and a very thin plot. Blandy Blanderson (aka Desmond Miles) finally gets his moment in the sun. It is a short moment, a fact that seems awkward after the series spent more then three games teasing it. I made my feelings about Desmond as a character quite clear in the past, and although he was less bland this time around, I was glad to spend as little time with him as I could.
Ubisoft already announced a sequel. I'm hopeful that now, released from the bonds of the plot, perhaps they will be able to manufacture a more involving story. But I'm kinda doubtful.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Bioshock Infinite - Vox Dei

Bioshock awed me back in 2007 with its commentary on the role of the player in video games as well as its critique of Objectivism and unrestrained capitalism. Its main flaw was, that after that momentous encounter with Andrew Ryan, the game continued for an hour and a half.
The success of Bioshock brought us a direct sequel in the form of Bioshock 2. But while mechanically sound, it had little to add to the story or experience. It did exactly what a sequel should not do - imitate the original rather then expand on it. Now we have Bioshock Infinite, born from the team that made the original. And It soared above my every expectation. It is very much a Bioshock game, but it avoids treading old grounds completely and emerges as one of the best gaming experiences I have ever had.

I wont talk a lot about the gaming mechanics. They do their job well. Battles are hectic and the weapons at your disposal feel just about right. Ammo drains quickly so you'll often change several weapons during several of the longer fight scenes, and since you can carry only two at a time - you will have to scavenge the environment for alternatives mid battle. And there are plenty alternatives to go around, so you'll often have plenty of opportunities to experiment with different weapons and tactics.
But weapons are only one half of your arsenal. Tonics play in much the same way as Plasmids did in Bioshock. Each has a direct attack mode and a trap mode. And the system works well with traps usually affecting multiple targets while direct attacks are immediate.
The battles are usually typified by frequent mobility thanks to the sky lines. The sky lines are rails that usually encircle an arena, allowing you to move from one side of the battlefield to the other or just avoid an enemy while you gather your wits. They don't have the extensive freedom some of the previews implied, but they certainly serve well as an emergency escape route or a way to surprise the occasional entranced enemy.
Finally there's Elizabeth, your companion. She will quickly scamper in the chaos of the battle but would occasionally offer you ammo, health or salts (which powers tonics), which you can catch and use with a button press. She always offers you the item you need at that moment, but not often enough for you to relay on it.
Death is not a serious hindrance. Elizabeth will "bring you back to life" minus a few dollars. It's not a serious punishment by any means, but since every upgrade to your arsenal requires money, you'll feel compelled to avoid it if possible.

The Acts
Bioshock Infinite is the story of Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt. And it is a well crafted story. It's about redemption through actions or faith and how these characters dealt with guilt and hope.
"Bring us the girl and wipe away your debt." is the sentence that catapults both player and Booker into Columbia. But that simple objective becomes more menacing and meaningful every-time it is uttered. After a while that seemingly simple directive becomes anything but simple- and it raises the questions that are at the core of the game and its plot.
Like the original Bioshock, Infinite has a measure of its plot directed at the player himself, but it is done so deliberately subtly that it remains hidden until the end and while it permeates much of the game, it does not rob the characters themselves of meaning or substance.
The characters work perfectly.
Booker manages to strike a perfect balance between player and character. He has enough personality to be distinct, enough history that we understand his motives and actions and yet the player is never divorced from the character and is free to act in the world.
Elizabeth never fits the niche of a median in distress. She is confident and independent even as she is inexperienced and a bit naive. She depends on Booker but never hinders the player and both come to care about her through their shared experiences. She truly is a marvel in terms of game character, as she dodges every pothole that made escort characters unrealistic or just distasteful in many games. Elizabeth is fun to be with and as a player I slowly came to care about her well-being in a way few games have managed to rival.
Your opponents in Colombia are less developed as characters. But they work well to represent their respective ideologies and faiths. Each comes close to being a caricature, but we get to see them act in different situations and thus eventually see nuances and traits that arn't readily apparent. It's nothing compared to the drama of Dewitt and Elizabeth, but it colors Columbia and its people. Don't expect the through social critique Objectivism got in Rapture, but there's certainly some serious satire on the social background of the united states. Both capitalism and socialism are shown in shocking extremes. But it is the religious aspects that get the main stage. 

Religion is such a pervasive element in the game I hesitate to say it's a critique of religion (although that is a major part in the plot). Rather, religion or more specifically, Born again Christianity, is the theme of Bioshock Infinite. Baptism, confession, absolution and ascension all resurface time and again throughout the game and plot in deliberate references to events and themes. It is a masterpiece of interwoven metaphors that often become literal in the way few works of fiction can create. The element of water and submersion is insidious to behold as it hides in the background waiting for a knowing eye to view the foreshadowing of events and emotions it embodies. I have few games, or movies or books for that matter - that play such skillfully with theme and metaphor.
It is hard to tell you what is so good about Bioshock Infinite without rambling on and on or spoiling the whole thing. It is best experienced as it is, without preconceived notions. Let it in, and before you know it, it crawled under your skin and wrapped itself around your heart. Even a week after finishing it, I still find myself hearing the sounds of Columbia and reminiscing on my time there with Elizabeth. And I suspect I will find myself doing so for many years to come.

Bioshock Infinite is as close as I got to heaven (gaming-wise).

Friday, 18 January 2013

Prototype 2: Character Assassination

When it comes to gameplay, Prototype 2 is simply better then the first. It is more streamlined with a more limited arsenal and less convoluted upgrade system. Infiltrating bases is simpler and missions repeat themselves less frequently. There's also a lot less of them. There are less optional missions, but their rewards are much grater. The campaign itself is shorter then the first's. It is also a lot more cohesive. Your goals are clear and the characters around you have clear and simpler motivations, rather then the vague and blurred goals of Prototype 1. It also means that as soon as you get full accesses to your arsenal, the game rushes to an ending. Leaving you precious few opportunities to use the abilities gained in the final act of the game.
The city is smaller compared to the original as well, but it's design is a lot more defined. Although transition between infected and uninfected areas is done through waypoints and a loading screen. So the subtle change of environment that I liked in the first game is nowhere to be seen. The city also doesn't change as the story progresses. Which is a shame since it was part of what made the setting come to life in the original. To conclude: it is a less ambitious design but a much more streamlined design as well.


Character and Plot

This is where Prototype 2 fails even more then the original did.
It start out promisingly enough with a distraught Protagonist, James Heller. Having lost his Wife and Daughter to a second outbreak of the virus, he joins the military in the heavily infected Red Zone. The first few minutes are sublime. Heller, chasing Mercer through the ruined streets. Despite witnessing his squad's horrific death and Mercer's god-like power, he pursues him with murderous rage. When he finally managed to catch up with Mercer, the latter easily subdues him and then infects him with his strain of the virus. Heller is convinced by Mercer's claim: that Blackwatch is responsible for this second outbreak. He teams up with a local priest to fight the morally bankrupt materialistic organization, but quickly finds out that Mercer is the real source of the virus and again pursues him for revenge.


A World of Evil Evil Men

While Heller seems at first to be a more flashed out character as a protagonist then Mercer, this quickly revealed as false. He has absolutely no character arc or interesting characteristics. And the game seems to think that the only way to make him a hero is depict his enemies as inhuman monsters.
Heller's ability to absorb the memories of his victims is totally wasted on this endeavor. Unlike their role in the first game, these memories rarely provide background story or flash out characters. Rather they serve to show the player that he is justified in killing every single human in his path, since they are all revealed to be callous, murderous and racists bastards who are not above raping the infected and the dead.
Yes, really. All subtlety that might have been directed at the fact Heller is fighting against an organization that tries to stop the plague is rendered mute as only one of them is not painted as an inhuman monster. And still it is hard to swallow Heller as a lesser evil since he seems completely oblivious and apathetic in his actions against his enemies and seems to treat his allies with only a symbolic amount of sympathy. Even going so far as to display unprovoked hostility towards another risking herself to aid him, to the point he demands she sacrifices herself for his benefit.
In this unflattering light, even his vengeance over his family's demise seems hypocritical. Since while he is quick to sabotage and condemn Blacklight's use of civilians in their experiments, he resorts to the same tactics when it advances his goals. He releases uncontrollable monstrosities on the populace, a few scant missions after trying to stop his enemies from doing the same. And releases a potentially deadly virus on the streets as he fights Mercer and Blacklight for those same sins.
Painting Heller as a single minded vengeance seeking lunatic, serves the gameplay's freedom as it allows you to embark on joyous atrocities without much guilt. But at the same time it undermines everything that could make him a good protagonist.
At the end, Mercer reveals himself as a cliche' Final Fantasy villain. You know the type: "The world is full of suffering, people are evil. So it is best to kill everyone to eliminate suffering and death and evil". This bare-bones nihilism is really insufferable as far as credible motivations go. But this time I found my self agreeing with the villain, since everyone I met in the game was a psychotic fuck. Including the protagonist himself.
All the while it seemed that the game's only defense was saying: Yes, but at least he is not a racist or a necrophile.
Yes, Heller is not a racist and he does not desecrate the dead with sexual acts. He does however murder thousand, eats people and absorbs their memories in service of his own personal goals. Color me morally dubious, but I think even the most depraved white supremacist dead-fucker would find it hard to compete in a race to the the bottom of the morality barrel.


Squandered Potential

 At the end it is frustrating because Prototype 2 could have been so much better. Casting Mercer as a villain could have been a fascinating exploration of a man who thought his enemies turned him into a monster, only to realize that what makes him a monster was there even before he got his terrible powers. Heller could be a good protagonist, who starts with his humanity stripped away and redeems himself through a rebellion against his creator.
Instead Prototype is a game with even less personality then it's predecessor. The setting that was relatively strong in the first game is pushed aside. And the protagonist seems undeserving of the good ending he eventually gets. The antagonist seem to be the most interesting character in the whole sordid affair, but he plays a very minor role in the story.
The gameplay is wonderful, but there's less reason and room to roam and enjoy what it offers to the fullest.